Summary: "Your daddy is the best guy I know for coming up with plans when things seem really bad."
As John pulled his truck onto their block, he reached up to the visor and hit the remote button to open the garage door. Still a few houses away, he could see the movement that signaled the receipt of his signal. Of course, their garage door system wasn't just an off-the-shelf one from Home Depot, not after Rodney had worked his magic on it. John had barely managed to keep him from wiring the microwave and the television and the cat's automatic waterer to it, but he had to admit he liked having Rodney's own version of a life signs detector incorporated into the little box. A green numeral "2" flashed to tell him that his family was home and safe.
Pulling past the front yard, John saw that Rodney and Caden sitting out in the grass, and he beeped the horn. Caden waved, and John kept an eye on him, not quite ready to trust that their rambunctious boy would remember to stay on the sidewalk, away from the moving vehicle. Once he had pulled in safely, he stopped the truck and opened his door, to find Caden bouncing eagerly a foot or two away.
John stepped out and was almost immediately used for a jungle gym by his scruffy haired son. He boosted Caden up by his pants and hefted him onto a hip.
"Daddy!" Caden smacked a kiss on John's cheek and John smacked him back.
"Hey, buddy! I missed you today."
"Missed you too!" Caden hugged him. "Piggyback please!"
"You got it." John turned around and offloaded Caden onto the driver's seat and then turned around so he could crawl back on. He bounced Caden back out front to where Rodney, sprawled on a beach towel, was surrounded by what looked like a selection of their daily mail. A slightly child worn, slick magazine lay abandoned to one side.
"Papa, Daddy's home!"
"What gave it away, kiddo?"
"We heard the garage door and then we saw his truck, 'member?" Caden tried to explain.
"Never mind." Rodney leaned up as John held on to Caden and leaned down for a kiss. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." John reached a hand around and combed through Rodney's hair, coaxing a smile out of his husband. "Smite many morons today?"
"More than my share, as usual. I'm in need of recharging." Rodney reached up and pulled John in closer, for a little more interesting kiss.
Caden squirmed off John's back, impatient with the smooching. "Daddy, I need you to take me to the doctor," he proclaimed as he ran to pick up his magazine.
At this, John pulled out of the kiss, much to Rodney's disappointment. "Why, buddy, don't you feel well?" He looked at Rodney. "Is he sick? He didn't feel warm. Come here, you," he motioned to Caden, and reached to feel his forehead.
"No, Daddy, not me! I'm okay!" Caden shook the slick color pages at him, "It's Peyton! Peyton's still hurt!"
"Buddy, you knew that. His knee just isn't up to par yet. Soon, though." Relieved, John flopped down on the towel next to Rodney.
"But that's what you said when he had surg-ry, and it's been a long time," Caden insisted, shaking the magazine for emphasis. "Too long!"
"Okay, but then why do you need to go to the doctor?" John asked, then bit his lip to stifle the laugh that came up when he saw Caden face morph into Rodney's "I cannot believe you are that stupid" look.
"Because I need to show Doctor Carolyn about Peyton so she can go to Indy and fix him! Preseason is almost over!" Caden's hands went flying and so did his precious SI. He ran to get it from its new landing place on the sidewalk.
John looked over at Rodney, who seemed to be content just reading through their mail.
"I'm not going to get to read that one before it falls apart, am I?"
"I'm thinking not."
"You can chime in here any time, you know."
"No, no, you're doing just fine. I, in fact, have already had this conversation more than once this afternoon, and I am quite happy to sit here and get paper cuts opening all these envelopes as opposed to having to hear about Paid-a-ton's hypochondria even one more time." Rodney sorted another piece of paper into a pile and didn't even look up.
John heard small feet running towards him and turned just in time to save himself from a total body slam to the ground. "Hey! I gotcha now!" He pinned a giggling Caden down on the towel and threatened every tickle spot he could reach, without following through till the very last one, a little spot on Caden's ribs. Giggles turned to howling laughter and John let Caden up when he started kicking. Those sneakers were small, but he had no intention of letting one get planted in his gut, or worse. Caden rolled away from him and ended up on his belly on one corner of the towel, breathing hard and still giggling.
John attempted to take advantage of Caden's change in mood. "I think the Colts doctors probably have everything under control, there, buddy. They have lots of good doctors in Indianapolis, just like Doctor Carolyn, and I'm sure the Colts have the very best ones for Peyton."
Failure. "No Daddy, they don't have good doctors or Peyton would be well by now!" Caden sat up with his SI in his lap and leafed through to a picture of Peyton calling his audibles. "I don't think you and Papa care about Peyton. You don't care if he gets well at all," he pouted.
"And here we go," Rodney mumbled.
John ignored him. "It's not that, Caden, but - "
"Papa doesn't!” Caden accused. “He said Peyton can take care of himself and he wouldn't let me call Doctor Carolyn even though I need to!"
"I think what Papa meant was - " John tried.
" - And you aren't taking me to Doctor Carolyn so you don't care too!" Caden folded up with his arms around his middle and a tear dropped onto the picture of Peyton. "I want Peyton to be better, and Doctor Carolyn could fix him, I know she could!"
More tears dropped and John's heart sank. Since it involved precious Peyton and the Colts, they probably weren't crocodile tears. He scooted over by Caden and touched a hand to his back. "Caden, buddy, we really do care about Peyton. If there was something we could do, we would, wouldn't we, Papa?"
Rodney maneuvered over to Caden's other side. "Sure we would. We, uh, think Peyton's, you know, great."
"No, you don't! If Einstein hurt his knee, you would want him to get fixed but you don't care about Peyton!"
"Kiddo, first of all, Einstein's been dead for a long time -"
" - See! If Doctor Carolyn was his doctor he'd be okay!" Caden protested, tears now streaming down his cheeks. He inched over to Rodney on his knees and draped himself over Rodney's shoulder, sobbing. "Please, Papa...”
"Oh god." Rodney hugged Caden and began stroking his back. "Don't cry, kiddo, don't cry... hey, hey, listen, you know what? Your daddy is the best guy I know for coming up with plans when things seem really bad. Seriously, if there's anything we can do, I'm sure he'll think of it." Rodney glared at John, daring him to not have a plan.
Caden sniffled and turned his head to look at John. No pressure there either. John reached over and fingered sweaty hair out of their offspring's face. "Wow. I will do my best to come up with something, buddy, but this is a pretty big problem. I think I'll need you and Papa both to help me, okay?"
Caden blinked back his tears, reached a hand out to John and nodded. "I can help you, Daddy. We will make a plan to fix Peyton."
Just as their food was being served, John spotted Carolyn Lam at the door of the Chinese restaurant. He waved, and as she came over to their booth, he and Rodney slid out to greet her. Caden stood up on his side of the booth and started to bounce, but a shoulder touch from Rodney lessened the odds of their food going flying.
"Hi!" Some BBQ pork on a stick had temporarily cured his meltdown and Caden's hug for her was nothing if not enthusiastic.
"Hello, Caden. It's good to see you." Carolyn hugged him back. The adults shook hands and as he scooted over to make room for the doctor, Caden giggled and reached across to shake hands with each of his parents. "Doctor, Colonel, how are you?"
Rodney rubbed his neck, "My neck's been a little sore lately. I was thinking maybe I should come in for an MRI- ow!" He glared at John and rubbed the spot where he'd been jabbed.
"You're fine, Rodney. And so am I." John smiled at their dinner guest. "You?"
"Happy to be here. Sorry I was late. I haven't been able to get off base much lately. This is a treat." Carolyn surveyed the dishes on the table between them. "Thanks for having me."
"Our pleasure. Dig in." Rodney waved a hand over the plates in the middle of the table. "Caden, hand me your plate, please."
Caden had other ideas. He was working the now severely abused Sports Illustrated out of his backpack. "Doctor Carolyn, this is Peyton Manning and I can tell you all about him and he needs you to fix his hurt knee."
"Caden," John admonished gently, "remember the plan? Doctor Carolyn gets to eat her dinner before she does her consult."
"What?" Caden pulled hard on the magazine and almost knocked his water glass over. Carolyn rescued it for him and pushed it a little farther away.
"No dinner, no Peyton talk."
"Oh, right," Caden nodded. "Sorry."
"It's okay," John reassured him. "Just hand Papa your plate. He'll get you some fried rice before you starve to death."
"Fried rice! Yay!"
An hour later, plates cleared and fortunes read, the adults all had tea, and the fortunes from their cookies lay scattered on the table. Caden had finally gotten to unload not only his new Sports Illustrated from his backpack, but all the ones that mentioned Peyton's injury, plus a few of his Colts books.
"So you can go and fix Peyton's knee now, right?" Caden looked hopeful.
"Well, not right away, Caden." Carolyn explained quietly.
"First of all, it sounds like from what you've shown me, that Peyton's doctors are doing exactly what I would do for him, so he may not need me to go to Indianapolis."
"But he's still hurt."
"Caden, I know, but you have to understand that - " Carolyn stopped, as her seat mate suddenly dropped under the table. "Are you okay?"
"Be right back. Papa, I gotta go pee," Caden's voice was muffled until he crawled out into the aisle.
Rodney turned to John. "Your son has the manners of a Wookie."
John had a mouthful of tea and couldn't answer, but tried to look suitably offended.
"Come on, Papa." Caden was already halfway down the aisle. Rodney slid out of the booth and followed him at a more sedate pace. John watched them go, then noticed Carolyn watching him.
"Doting parents," Carolyn smiled at him.
"Guilty." John grinned.
"My mom never would have indulged an interest of mine like this. She was all about school."
"Football's more of an passion for Caden."
"Passion? At five years old?"
"Almost six now. Time flies, and all that."
"And you don't think it's a passing fancy?" Carolyn shook her head. "Sorry, it's really none of my business. It just amazes me, the lengths you've gone to tonight for some celebrity you've never even met."
"Well, actually," John leaned back in the booth, "We've met Peyton."
"Really? At a game?"
"Nope. At Target. In the grocery aisle."
"You're kidding me."
"I swear. Don't ask Caden about it though, or we won't get out of here before midnight."
"I understand." Carolyn sipped her tea.
"And it's not like we're best friends with the guy or anything," John continued, "it was just him being nice to a four year old and his doting parents."
"But still, why go to all this trouble? Not that I didn't enjoy dinner and all."
John shrugged. "Rodney and I both have our interests, our passions. Caden's grown up with that, Rodney's science, my flying. He sees what happens when you're totally absorbed in something. We're just supporting his choices."
Carolyn still looked skeptical, so John continued. "Look at it this way. Caden got his own library card the day he toddled up to the children's librarian, pounded on her desk with his teddy bear, and demanded, 'more books!'. Doing research and arguing his point is second nature to him now."
"Not much choice, with the two of you around, is that it?"
John chuckled. "Not really. And, if he has that advantage in school starting at a six-year-old level, can you imagine what a difference that could make later on?
"So he really understands everything he told me?"
"Enough of it, and the parts that he doesn't, he can at least recite well enough to fill in."
"Then there is method in your madness."
"So far." John grinned.
"All right. I get it." Carolyn sat back, teacup in hand. "But, this Peyton thing, you know, I'm not going to be able to give him what he wants."
"Yeah. But half his fun is in the trying." John sat up and scooted over as he saw Caden and Rodney headed back down the aisle. "Whatever happens, happens. Good for him to learn that too."
Caden crawled back under the table and up into his seat, then bounced impatiently as Rodney slid in next to John. "So, Doctor Carolyn, when can you go see Peyton? I need to know because Papa said we could go too when you go and we need to get tickets."
"Rodney." John tap danced around Rodney's snap decision, "We need to check the calendar. I think you and I may have to work that day." He didn't want Caden looking forward to something that probably wasn't going to happen.
"What? How do you know that? We don't even know what day it is she's going."
"We need to check the calendar in case we can't go."John emphasized.
"Oh... right." Rodney caught on. "Yes, we'll have to check the calendar first, kid. I forgot."
"But Papa, you said - " Caden argued.
"I know what I said, but Daddy's right. We need to check first."
"You could take a day off work. You did that when we went to Toronto last time, so you could do it this time when we need to go see Peyton."
"We'll see we'll see we'll see we'll see," Caden sing-songed. "Does that mean no, Papa?"
"It does not. As you are well aware, I am perfectly capable of saying no if I mean no, young man. In this case- "
John saw that Rodney was just warming up for a good lecture and gestured to Carolyn to say something, quick.
" -I mean that your daddy and I need more information before we make the decision to take a trip that likely-"
Carolyn cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Rodney, I think I can help here. Caden, I understand that you're really worried about Peyton, and that you want to make sure he gets well fast, but there are a couple of things I need to explain to you."
Caden stopped bouncing. "Okay."
"There are special rules that doctors have to follow, and one of those rules is that usually we can't take care of someone unless they ask. So, I can't just go to Indianapolis and go see Peyton and try to fix his knee."
"But he really needs you." Caden insisted.
"Hang on. If this is really that important, there is one thing I can do. I can't call and check on Peyton specifically because he's not my patient, but what I can do is check out his doctors for you. I have a friend from medical school who is from Indianapolis. I'm sure she'll know someone on the staff at the hospital Peyton goes to, and we'll go from there."
"Okay, but what if they aren't good? Then will you go?"
"I would be happy to go if Peyton wanted me to, Caden, but either he or the Colts have to ask me to take care of him."
"That's not fair!"
"Sorry, but that's the way it is. But let's wait and see about his docs. They might be better than me, you know."
"No!" Caden crawled over and threw his arms around her. "You're the best doctor ever!"
"Thank you, Caden. I appreciate that. Can I count on you to remember that the next time I have to stick you with a needle to make you feel better?"
Caden pulled back and looked at her thoughtfully. "Yes. I promise. Unless it's a big needle, and then I might cry just a little."
"Deal. And one more thing. I have an idea for something you can do while we're waiting for my friend to call back." She leaned over and whispered a couple of sentences in Caden's ear.
"I think it would be prettier on the 'puter." Caden surveyed the paper in his hands critically.
"It's more personal this way, buddy." John observed. "I think it's fine. What did Papa say?"
"He says the blue matches his eyes." Caden rolled his eyes. "He's silly. This is Colts' Blue."
"Of course it is," John agreed. "Do you want help with the envelope?"
Caden considered the offer. "Is it pers'nal if I do it myself?"
"Then I'll do it." Caden nodded. "But you'll take me to the post office?"
"You got it. One special delivery letter to Indianapolis, coming right up."
"When will Peyton answer me?"
"That's a tough one, buddy. I'm sure Peyton gets a lot of mail. It might take him a while to get to yours."
"Oh. But he needs to know about Doctor Carolyn right now!" Caden thought for a moment, "What if I write 'important' on the envelope?"
Caden stretched up and pushed the envelope into the slot marked "First Class Mail" and waited until he heard it drop. "There. Now it will get to Indy by Monday. And Peyton will read it on... Tuesday?" He took John's hand and looked up hopefully.
"I don't know, buddy. Like I said, Peyton probably gets a lot of mail. I'm not sure when he'll find it." John hoped there was at least some sort of form letter that got sent out. He already knew that Caden would be spending his afternoons waiting by the mailbox. Maybe they could take a little trip, get him distracted. A long weekend in Denver or something, away from the tv. Maybe, just maybe, Peyton would get better while they were gone, or some other miracle would happen, and Caden wouldn't get his little heart broken and take his and Rodney's down with it. John shivered at the thought. A more immediate distraction then came to mind, and he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to Caden. "Here, call Papa and see if he wants us to stop at the store."
"I think we need cookies," Caden said solemnly as he punched in the speed dial number.
"I think you're probably right." John held the lobby door and steered Caden through it. "What kind shall we get?"
"The kind Peyton likes. Papa will know." Caden replied, then spoke into the phone. "Hi Papa, it's Caden... what kind of cookies does Peyton Manning like?" There was a pause and John could hear Rodney's voice squawking from the other end of the call. "Oh, oh, Papa I forgot that! Thank you!" He started to hang up but John motioned for him to keep talking, "Oh, right, Papa, Daddy wants to know if we need anything from the store."
John sighed and worked on making sure they both got back to the truck without getting run down in the parking lot. Distraction indeed. He'd book a hotel room as soon as they got home.
Rodney yanked the utility room door open almost as fast as it had slammed behind Caden. "Caden! Go check Raven's bowls and make sure she's not out of anything!"
"'Kay!" The answer echoed back into the garage.
Rodney let the door fall shut again and made his way to the back of John's truck, where he was unloading all their paraphernalia. "How can we be gone for only three nights and end up carrying around all of this crap?"
"I tried to tell you back when we were lugging around diapers and bottles and a billion changes of clothes that it was only going to get worse and I seem to remember you not believing me," John replied as he handed Rodney two shopping bags labeled "Denver Zoo".
"Well, how was I supposed to know you knew what you were talking about?" Rodney complained. "You never had a kid before either." His eyes narrowed. "Did you? Are you holding out on me, Sheppard?"
As a retort, John piled all three of their backpacks on top of what Rodney was already carrying. "No, Rodney, as you well know, I haven't had a kid before." His reply was a little shorter than he meant it to be, but he had a headache from Caden's humming all the way home. Some annoying song he'd learned at day camp over the summer, and off-key, no less, over and over and over, even when he'd been told to cool it. John rubbed his eyes, then pulled a cooler on wheels out of the truck, along with a small suitcase, and slammed the hatch shut. "And anyway, when would I have had time?" He made his way around to the door and pulled it open for Rodney.
"Thanks. Well, you wouldn't, not really, but there could have been, maybe, with Nancy?" Rodney teased.
"No, not with Nancy. I was never home. That was a big part of the problem." John didn't really like to talk about his... first marriage... and he wished Rodney would lay off.
"But when you were home..." Rodney continued to have fun at John's expense. He dumped his load on the kitchen counter and began unzipping all the backpacks.
"No, Rodney, when I was home, we were fighting about me not being home." John tried to be patient, but he really really didn't like this subject. And it was making his head hurt worse.
"What, no makeup s- "
"Rodney. Why are we talking about this?" John's temper finally blew. "Never mind. Because we're not. End of discussion."
Caden chose that moment to barrel into the room and banged off the doorway, which physics then dictated would send him straight into John and send the mail in his own arms flying. "Oops. Sorry, Daddy!" He started to pick up the mail, but John tugged on one of his sleeves to stand him up.
"Did you do what Papa asked? Check Raven's bowls?" John asked. He could see from where he was that the kibble bowl was empty, so he was pretty sure he knew what the answer was.
"Yes, but I had to get the mail first and see if I had a Peyton letter and then I was gonna put more- " A look from John cut Caden off in mid-story. "Sorry, Daddy." He dropped the couple of envelopes in his hand back into the pile on the floor and slouched over to where they kept the cat food.
Rodney took a water bottle out of his own backpack and took it to the sink to wash. "Nice way to end the weekend, Colonel Killjoy. Which one of your toys did he break?"
"You told him to do something, Rodney, and he didn't do it." John snapped.
"And what, that's never happened before?" Rodney came right back.
"In case you haven't noticed, he hasn't been listening to either of us since we left Denver and he needs to straighten up."
"In case you haven't noticed, he's a little kid who's had a long weekend and he's wound up and tired. Evidently he takes after you."
"So what, you're going to send me upstairs for a nap?" John snapped back.
"If you're not smart enough to go on your own, I just might." Rodney retorted, chin up and arms folded.
"Screw that." John turned on his heel and headed for the stairs. He wasn't tired and even if he was, now he wouldn't give Rodney the satisfaction. He'd go for a run and then he'd deal with everything. Later.
"No, Caden, not this time." John pulled the laces on his left shoe tighter and retied it.
"Why not? I can keep up on my bike!" Caden demanded.
"Because you need to stay here."
"No! I want to go ride my bike!" Caden bent down so he was in John's face. "I want to go too!"
John finished with his shoes and, without replying, moved into the dining room. He pulled a chair out from the table and flipped it so it was facing the wall farthest from the door. "Caden, come here please."
Caden peeked around the door frame. "Nooo! Daddy, I didn't do anything!" He disappeared, and John could hear him going to Rodney's office. "Papa, Daddy wants me to do time out and I didn't do anything!"
He waited impatiently for Rodney to walk Caden back down the hall and into the dining room. As they crossed the threshold from the hall, Caden began to pull back on Rodney. "No, Papa, I didn't do anything. I just want to go ride my bike!"
"Come on, kiddo. You know you have to go."
"It's not fair." Caden pulled away from Rodney to stomp over to the chair. He flopped down in it, folded his arms, and glared up at John.
"Do you know why you have time out?"
"Because you're mean."
"As you have just so wonderfully demonstrated, your listening stinks today. You're going to sit here and think about it while I go out for my run."
"Not the whole time, Daddy!"
"Oh yeah. That's how bad it stinks."
"And then when you get back, I'm going to go ride my bike and you are going to have time out. And a nap!" Caden scooted back in the chair, pointedly looking away from John, and began humming the song that had driven John out of his mind in the car.
"That's if I let you have a bike to ride when I get back, " John answered, pushing his way past Rodney to get out of the room. "Deal with him before I do something I'm going to regret."
"I think you've already managed that. Stick up your ass will do it every time."
John grabbed his sunglasses off the kitchen counter on his way by, and as he pulled the front door open, heard Rodney calling behind him.
"How long are you going to be gone?"
"Don't come back till your head's on straight, if it's not too much trouble."
Slamming the door felt good. A little voice in his head reminded him that it set a lousy example for Caden, but John ignored it, seeing as the warning was too little too late anyway. He trotted down to the sidewalk, looked both ways, then crossed the street so he could run on the asphalt, at least as far as the edge of their subdivision. His body fell into its regular rhythm easily, letting his mind fall into the zone as well. Rodney's carping and Caden's singing went totally out of his head, even if his headache didn't.
It was overcast, but John slipped his sunglasses on anyway. Maybe that would help his head. There was a bit of a breeze too. This was going to be a good run.
John wasn't sure what woke him, the doorbell or Caden thumping down the hall, yelling "I got it!" He scratched the back of his head, trying for awake and not quite managing. Bleary-eyed, he sat up on the couch and swung his legs over, narrowly missing the edge of the coffee table with his toes. There were a couple of empty water bottles on the table, and one about a quarter full. He reached for that one and drained it, but that wasn't enough. Why was he so damned thirsty? Oh. Right. His Run of Doom.
In his snit, he'd gone off without a hat or water or money or any sort of preparation which should have been second nature for any self-respecting Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, retired. Never mind checking the weather. Indian summer, right. Clear and hot had not been his friend. He'd turned for home as soon as he'd realized what was happening, but he had still been crampy and dehydrated before he got back. Caden was right. He should get a timeout, for being stupid.
His goal had been to sneak in and get in the shower before said stupidity was obvious to the rest of the family, but Caden had opened the front door and ratted him out to Rodney when he'd stumbled in.
Rodney had stripped him down to his underwear and made him drink all that water before he'd let him pass out on the couch like any decent person would have done first. But Rodney would have more water for him now and that was a good thing. Then his one functioning brain cell reminded him that Caden was about to let someone in the door.
"Hey, Rod-" John turned around to call over the back of the couch and was hit in the face with what he discovered was a pair of his running shorts.
"Oh, sorry." Rodney set a super-sized glass of water down on the coffee table. "You might want to pull those on. Lam's here."
John blinked, then turned around and tried to quickly slide into the shorts, but he was sticking to the couch and it wasn't happening easily. "Lam? What did you call her for? I'm fine."
"You're not fine, but I didn't call her. She called us. Something to do with ponies."
"Colts, Papa! Don't call them ponies!" Caden insisted. "Can I let Doctor Carolyn in now? I think she knows about Peyton!"
"Gimme a sec, buddy." John took a hand up from Rodney and winced as his legs peeled off the cushion. He used Rodney to balance and managed to get his pants up without too much more trouble. "Okay. Let her in." He reached for the glass of water and drained half of it while he listened to Caden excitedly greet their guest.
"Hi hi do you know about Peyton? Tell me!"
"Nice to see you, too." Carolyn answered wryly. "As a matter of fact, I do have something to tell you," she explained, holding up an official-looking manila envelope.
Caden grabbed her free hand and pulled her down the hallway. "Daddy! Papa! She's here!"
"Hi Doc, come on in." John motioned her over to the big chair.
"Like she has a choice," Rodney pointed out, clearing some of mess off the coffee table out of her way. "Caden, don't hang on her. She's not used to being a trapeze like your poor parents are."
Caden blew a raspberry in the general direction of his parents and climbed up on the back of the overstuffed chair mere seconds after Lam settled herself.
"One of these days, your face is going to freeze like that," Rodney said, then turned to John, bewildered. "What did I just say?"
"You don't want to know. Certainly nothing Caden's going to listen to." John eased himself back down onto the couch and finished off the glass of water.
"I'm turning into my grandmother," Rodney complained. He sat down next to John and leaned in. "Do I have a fever?"
John pushed him off, "Like I could tell?"
Rodney sat up and felt his own forehead. "Didn't think so. Not delirious. Definitely early onset dementia."
"You mean demented, don't you?"
"I'm serious, Sheppard. You know what we've been exposed to," Rodney hissed. "You have no idea -"
"Shut up, Rodney," John hissed back. "Doctor Carolyn and Caden have started without us and now we won't know what's happening with Peyton."
"Oh, right. How will we ever live with ourselves if we don't know what's happening with Peyton." Rodney snarked.
Caden took an x-ray out of Lam's hands and slid down off the chair. "Don't worry, Papa. I can tell you." He bounced onto the couch, trying to slide in between Rodney and John.
John winced out of the way, and saw Carolyn observing him, concerned. He grinned at her and shrugged, hoping to deflect the attention.
"Here is Peyton's knee. See, there, that's a marker and it says 'left'," Caden lectured. "Daddy, you have to look."
"Sorry. Okay, I see. Peyton's left knee."
"Yes, and there is where they did surg-ry, where the fuzzy spot is." Caden popped the film with one finger for emphasis.
"And does Doctor Carolyn approve?" Rodney asked.
"Yes. And she told me why it takes so long for him to get well, but we can't tell you unless you keep the secret." Caden looked so serious that John had to bite back a laugh.
"I think we can do that, buddy. What's the deal?"
Caden took a look back at Lam and got a smile and a nod of encouragement. "Peyton had surg-ry once to fix his tear and then once 'cause he got an infection inside.
Rodney squinted at the film. "And the prognosis?"
"What's that word?"
"It means "from what we know now about Peyton's knee, what do we guess is going to happen?" Rodney explained.
"Oh." Caden considered that. "How do you spell it?"
"Try it," John encouraged, "Prog-no-sis."
"Prog... like frog?"
"Yep." Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Carolyn lean forward in her seat, curious.
"P-r-o-g..." Caden tried, bouncing as he said each letter.
"No..." Rodney continued.
"N-o..." Caden went on.
"Sis..." John finished.
"S..." Caden started, then stopped. "Like sister or like system?"
"Sister." Rodney nodded.
"S-i-s. P-r-o-g-n-o-s-i-s!" Caden reached for a high five from both his parents.
"We can write that one in your book tonight, kid. Don't let me forget." Rodney ruffled his hair.
"Okay, and Papa?"
"Since I can spell sister, could I please have one?" Caden blinked up at Rodney hopefully.
John tapped him on the top of the head.
"Ow!" Caden turned around and glared up at his father.
"We've had this discussion, buddy. More than once."
"But Daddy..." It was almost a whine, but not quite.
"And we have company and you haven't answered Papa's question about Peyton yet." John fully intended to change the subject.
"Oh! Right!" Caden scrambled off the couch and bounced back over to the big chair. "Peytonprognosispeytonprognosispeytonpro
"From what I can tell, I think he'll probably miss the rest of the pre-season, but I predict that he'll start the first game anyway."
"Yay!" Caden cheered and danced back to the couch, waving the x-ray around like a banner. "Daddy, he's gonna play! Papa, Peyton's gonna play!"
"That's great, buddy. Looks like you're going to have a good season after all. How are we going to celebrate?" John stretched and immediately regretted it. It was all he could do to get his arms back down at his sides. So much for hiding things from Lam.
Rodney corralled Caden between his legs and they were playing keep away with the film that Caden hadn't quite managed to destroy yet. "I think we should send the little monster, that's you by the way, to pick something out of the menu book and we'll get some food in."
John nodded and turned carefully to their visitor. "Will you stay?"
"Thanks, no, I can't."
"Give that back to Doctor Carolyn, you, and go pick out some dinner." Rodney gave up and sat back on the couch. "And then go put your swim trunks on. I think Daddy needs his head soaked or something."
Caden tossed the film in Lam's general direction and ran off, chortling, "Peyton's gonna plaaay, Peyton's gonna plaaay." Scraping noises from the kitchen told them that he'd gone in search of the menus.
John tried to rescue the film and couldn't quite reach. Carolyn got up to get it and gave him a knowing look.
"I'm fine,” John insisted, but his puppy dog look didn't work on the diminutive doctor.
Carolyn didn't argue. She simply sat down on the couch arm and proceeded to take his pulse, consulting her watch after she'd found the wrist spot. The three of them grew quiet, the only sound in the room carrying through from the kitchen, where Caden was reading random items from their menu notebook out to himself.
Lam finished, took a cursory check of John's forehead and the back of his neck with one hand, then stared in his eyes for a minute. “How are you feeling, really?”
John looked sideways at Rodney. “Liar.”
Rodney snorted. “I said I didn't call her. I never said I didn't tell her how you screwed yourself up.”
“Better, really,” John looked back Lam. “Rodney forced all that water down me and I took a nap. I'm just a little sore.”
“I think you're okay. I wouldn't get in the hot tub, but carefully stretching out in the pool might help.”
“Great, Doc, thanks.” John leaned back on the couch and stretched. “Are you sure you won't stay?”
“I really can't. I go on shift in an hour.”
Rodney looked over his shoulder to make sure Caden was still in the kitchen, then leaned over to whisper, “How'd you get that stuff from Indianapolis, Doc? I know they didn't just hand it to you.”
“I didn't get anything,” Carolyn leaned in. “I made it up. The x-ray is a copy of someone who had knee surgery on base, and the reports I cooked up on my own.”
“Huh. But you said Piton's going to play. Isn't that going out on a limb?” Rodney replied.
She started to question the odd pronunciation, but when she saw John roll his eyes, she let it go. “You haven't had the news on today, have you?”
“Nope. We just got home from Denver a couple of hours ago. Why?”
Carolyn grinned. “Peyton's going to start the first game.”
John sighed and flopped back on the sofa pillows. “Thank god.” He rolled his head towards Rodney. “Let's keep it to ourselves till tomorrow, shall we? I don't think I can take a bigger celebration tonight.”
Caden laid the phone down on the kitchen counter and sighed. “Uncle Cam has to go to work. He can't come watch the game with us.”
“That's too bad, buddy. Maybe next week.” In a cloud of condensation, John closed the freezer door. “Help me make a grocery list, would you? We're all out of game food.”
“Okay.” Caden slid off his stool and went around to the junk drawer to get paper and a pen. “Can we have pizza?”
The front door slammed. “No, not pizza again,” Rodney declared as he came around the corner. “How about tacos?”
“Yay, tacos!” Caden began to write. “Taco shells... hamburger...”
Rodney tossed some envelopes on the counter in front of him. “Let me make the list, kiddo. I think you're going to want to check the mail.”
Caden looked up, curious, then began to paw through the pile. John silently came up behind him and craned his neck to see. A big white envelope caught Caden's attention and he pulled it out from under everything else. “Papa!”
“I saw it. Show Daddy.”
“Daddy, look! Is this from Peyton?” Caden asked excitedly. In the upper left hand corner of the envelope, the return address, printed in blue, read:
7001 West 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46254
The Colts logo was embossed beside it and Caden ran one finger over it, feeling the bumps. He looked up when John handed him a butter knife.
“Here, buddy. Use this like Papa's letter opener.”
Caden turned the envelope over and did just that. He slid out a piece of paper and a photograph, both upside down. He righted the piece of paper and began to read out loud.
“Indianapolis Colts. 7001 West 56th Street. Indianapolis, IN 46254. Dear Caden.” Caden beamed. “That's me!”
John ruffled his hair. “The one and only. Keep going, you're doing fine.”
“Dear Caden. Thank you for your letter. I app... appre... “ Caden looked up at Rodney for help.
“Appreciate.” Caden echoed. “I appreciate your concern about my knee, but as you pro-bly know by now, I have been cleared to play as of our first regular season game. I'm sure that Dr. Carolyn is a fine doctor and that she takes very good care of you. I also want to thank you for being such a big Colts fan. We try our very best to win all our games for our fans and it helps to know that you are watching. Sin...”
“Sincerely,” Rodney prompted.
“Sincerely, Peyton Manning!” Caden crowed. “He wrote me back, Daddy, he wrote me back! And it was pers-nal! Papa, look!”
Rodney slid the photo over, “You look, see what else is in here.”
Caden flipped it over. It was an action figure of Peyton running with a football, signed in blue, “Caden - be the best, Peyton Manning.”
“That's really nice, kiddo, we'll have to frame it and put it on your wall.”
“Can we go get a frame now?”
“We could,” Rodney replied, “But the game starts at 6 and we don't have anything for dinner. Why don't we go to the grocery now, and save this for tomorrow and then we'll go to Target and find something nice.”
“Cool!” Caden grabbed the letter and the photo and ran off.
“Hey, what about my list?” John called.
“You do it!” floated into the room over the pounding of little feet going up stairs.
John looked over at Rodney and grinned. “I believe Project Fix Peyton is now mission accomplished.”
“Agreed. And I think we should call it a success.” Rodney grinned back.
“Agreed. Now all we need to do is finish the grocery list and get back in time for the game.” John made his way around the counter and hopped up on the stool next to Rodney.
“I think we should abandon the list and take our chances.”
“You know that means we'll come home with six bags of Cheetos and no milk.”
“Yeah, well, I'm feeling lucky today.” Rodney said slyly.
“Define lucky.” John looked at him sideways.
“I think the Colts are going to wipe the Chargers off the map, and then we will celebrate with our son, and then-” Rodney leaned in, “we can celebrate in private. What do you think?”
“I think I like the way you think.” John kissed him once, then again, a little longer.
Rodney reluctantly pulled back. “Come on, flyboy, if we're getting to the store and back before 6, we need to get going.
“I like it here.” John leaned after him.
“You won't when our son comes down and starts making fun of kissyface again.”
“Let's go.” John took off down the hallway. “Caden! Get your jacket and come on!”
John turned the front door knob and was surprised to find it locked. Rodney and Caden should be home by now, storytime at the library was over at 1630. He fumbled for his keys and got in, only to have the house alarm go off in his ear. Hurriedly, John entered the secret code and the obnoxiously loud noise was silenced. That would have confirmed the fact that Rodney and Caden were out, except for the fact that the yelling he heard was clearing coming from Rodney.
"I said, get back down here and pick up this mess right now." Rodney yelled up the stairs. He turned as John walked up behind him. "Oh, it's you."
"Either that or our secret code has been plastered all over My Space. Of course it's me. Why was the alarm set if you're..." John trailed off as he noticed the mess on the floor. Books, magazines, toys, scattered from the stairs, around the corner to the bathroom, and out into the living room. From what he could see, it also looked like the sofa cushions and pillows had exploded onto the floor as well. "What the hell happened here?"
Rodney started to answer, but a door slamming upstairs got his attention. "Caden Ford McKay-Sheppard! I know you can hear me! Get down here!"
"You still haven't told me what's going on. And why don't you just go get him?"
"And have the door slammed in my face again? He nearly brained me!" Rodney pointed to the red spot on his forehead."
"Why?" John insisted.
"And...what? Caden's suddenly allergic to Thursday?"
"Thursday is the day that Sports Illustrated comes in the mail." Rodney huffed.
"And this one covers the first week of the playoffs," John sighed.
Rodney shot him with his finger. "Bingo. The Colts being eliminated is not part of our son's current reality."
John headed up the stairs, patting Rodney on the back on his way by. "What's for dinner?"
"It's supposed to be night out, but not if Timmy Tantrum is going to be throwing things." Rodney yelled up.
"Get your shoes on. I'll get him out."
"Be my guest." Rodney disappeared into their office.
John started to open the just-slammed door, then changed his mind and knocked. “Caden? Can I come in, buddy?”
After a minute, the door clicked open and John eased his way in to see Caden plopping down face down on his bed and pulling his Colts pillow over his head.
“Hard day, buddy?” John asked softly. A kick to the already abused bedspread and a sob out from under the pillow told him all he needed to know. He sat down on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on Caden's back. When it wasn't immediately knocked away, he began to rub in slow circles. “I know it sucks to lose.”
Sniffles emanated from under the pillow. “But they cheated.”
“Well, calls aren't always going to go your way. Things go wrong and sometimes it's for you and sometimes it's for the other team. Part of playing the game.”
More sniffles, then a hand reached up and the pillow went flying. “It's not fair, Daddy!”
“I know, Padawan, but trust me, as good as it feels to wreck the house, it's not going to fix anything.”
“But it was Peyton's turn! He should win the Super Bowl!” Caden rolled over and faced John, who just had to wipe the tears off his bereft son's face.
“Evidently it's Eli's turn again, buddy. We'll just have to root for Little Brother like last year, won't we?” John watched as a mini-explosion threatened, but then, as if a switch had been flipped, Caden's face relaxed, and he sighed.
“Wouldn't I play football better if I had a little brother?”
John snorted. “Maybe, but we're not going to find out.” He stood up and swung Caden up and off the bed.
“No. No brother. I do know you'll play better if you learn to hang onto the football. Where's yours?”
Caden dove under the bed and came out with his Pee Wee football. “Here!”
“Tuck it under like I showed you and lets go get something to eat. Papa's waiting for us.” John went to hold the door open and noticed that Caden hadn't moved. “What?”
“Papa's mad at me.”
John scooped Caden up into a hug. “Well, thanks for taking the heat, buddy, because usually he's mad at me. Let's go see if he's over it yet.” He turned to get them both through the door without bumping. “Jesus, Caden, when did you get so big?”
“Yesterday!” Caden proclaimed.
“Yesterday? How do you know that?” John asked as he trotted down the stairs.
Caden stuck his foot out to show the cuff of his jeans. “See? Too short.”
“Rodney, the kid is growing again! Think we could toss him in the dryer and shrink him so he'll still fit in his clothes?”
“Nooo!” Caden wriggled down, still clinging tight to his football.
Rodney came out and picked their jackets up off the couch. “Theoretically, the hot air will dehydrate anything, and therefore shrink it somewhat, but in practice...”
“Nooo! Caden grabbed his jacket out of Rodney's hand and ran for the garage door. “No dryer! Dinner so I can get bigger!”
“You've created a monster,” John said as he took his own jacket from Rodney.
“Me? As I recall, I only created half.” Rodney replied. “We share the blame, fifty fifty.” He took John's hand as they walked out through the utility room.
“What about when he becomes a famous football player?”
“You mean when he becomes a famous astrophysicist? I take all the credit, of course.”