Disclaimer: Numb3rs and its characters, settings, concepts etc belong to CBS and their creators, and no infringement of copyright is intended. Also, no disrespect to Princeton intended. I'm sure it's a wonderful, welcoming, nurturing place; but in the case of this story I had to make it a little less than idyllic. This is artistic license.
Spoilers: Minor only, up to 1x11 "Sacrifice"
Rating: K to K+ - though really, this show is not suitable for kids, so should they be reading the fanfiction?
Author's note: This one-shot piece is a companion piece to A-Blackwinged-Bird's (Emily's) great short piece, A New Frontier, which you can find in the numb3rsfanfiction yahoogroup archives or at ff-net (go to the author profile for a-blackwinged-bird or look through the ff-net archives for Numb3rs) ; she was kind enough to give me her permission to use her idea. This is the story of Charlie's view of that fateful day he met Larry, and how he came to CalSci from Princeton.
Feedback is always appreciated!
A New Beginning
Charlie stared out the window of the station wagon, taking in the quiet beauty around him. The CalSci campus looked nice, kind of peaceful, and it would be good to be closer to home, he supposed. The campus looked clean and inviting, so much smaller than Princeton. But, as Charlie knew too well, appearances could be deceiving.
Princeton had been a disaster - nothing at all like he had expected. Now, looking back, Charlie was disgusted by the naïvite of his younger self, the cocky thirteen-year-old kid, always the smartest of anyone he knew, on his way to Princeton: Fine Hall, where Einstein, Turing, Whitehead, and the brightest mathematical minds of 20th Century America had gathered. Finally, he'd have fellow students and teachers he could talk to.
But nothing was as he had expected. He hated New Jersey - the winter was cold and the snow, which had always seemed so wonderful in his boyhood imagination, was really just wet and grey. The other students either discounted him as a kid, the way Don's friends always did, or resented him for outshining them. They, too, were accustomed to being the brightest in their classes, and they were not ready to accept a thirteen-year-old among them, no matter how smart. Having his mother picking him up after class in front of Fine Hall didn't help much, either.
His professors just seemed exasperated by him, when he was able to talk to them at all. They kept aloof, maintaining their distance from him and most of the other students, and when Charlie had a question, he invariably had to go to one of the other students for help - which was seldom a winning proposition - or work it out himself.
It wasn't long before his grades began to slip. He began feeling sick in the mornings before class; more than once he actually threw up. He started searching for excuses not to go, and even began to cut class. He started to stoop and slouch, where before he had always stood tall. By the end of his freshman year, he was barely passing, and so isolated he barely spoke even to his mother. He missed Don, he missed his dad, he missed California, and never in his life had he come so close to truly hating mathematics.
Finally, he and his mother had been called to the Dean's office. The dean, a smallish man who spoke only to Mrs. Eppes, as though Charlie himself were not there, said that, with grades like these, Charlie's scholarship could not be renewed, and had they considered CalSci?
And so there he was, almost fifteen and about to try college for a second time. His father drove in silence, understanding that his son didn't want to talk. He pulled up in front of the math building, and stopped.
"This is it," he said finally. Charlie didn't move; he just stared at the entrance of the building, at the students passing in and out. He noticed that a solid majority were male. He began to calculate the ratio of male to female students, noticed what he was doing, made himself stop.
"You want me to come in with you?" Alan asked, after a pause.
Charlie blinked. He could do this on his own? He hadn't thought it was an option. At Princeton, his mother had insisted on coming with him to the Dean's office, meeting his profs, helping him find his classroom. He had grown used to her constant shepherding, even if sometimes he felt like he was smothering. He looked at his father, and saw in those dark eyes understanding; Alan knew what his son was facing, but was ready to allow him to make his own move.
"Oh. Um, no, Dad, thanks. I think I'll be okay."
"Okay. You give me a call when you're ready to come home, then, all right?"
"Sure." Charlie grabbed his bag, put his hand on the door handle, and took a deep breath.
A hand was on his shoulder. "You're going to be just fine, Charlie," Alan said quietly, with a seriousness, a sincerity, that helped Charlie to ground himself. He gave his father a quick, tight smile, and got out of the car.
The halls of the math building were quiet; classes were in session. He passed through the corridors, painfully aware of the gentle squeaking of his high-top sneakers on the tile floor.
Passing a classroom, Charlie paused to look in. It was a small class, maybe eight students. Charlie would have liked to see the chalkboard, what they were working on, but his view was blocked - the prof and two of the students were working on something together, excitedly drawing symbol after symbol on the green surface. Finally, they stepped back, and the rest of the students clapped their applause; one student high-fived the instructor as the other whooped in victory.
Charlie was stunned. None of his classes at Princeton had been like that. He didn't know what to think, but somehow he felt vaguely encouraged. Then, he remembered - he wasn't even quite fifteen. His odds of sucessfully integrating with a group like that - well, he didn't want to calculate the odds. It was too depressing.
When he turned away from the window, he found another student had stopped in the hallway near him. He was regarding Charlie with a vaguely distracted look, confused, but not unkind.
"Hey, kid. You waiting for your brother or something?" The older boy asked.
Charlie shook his head. "Actually, I'm looking for the Dean's office."
"Oh, okay. Up those stairs, on your right."
When Charlie reached the Dean's office, the secretary, a motherly sort, was expecting him. As he sat in the waiting area while the Dean finished up his prior appointment, members of the faculty came and went on various errands. Each invariably glanced at him, looked away, stopped, looked again when they realized who he was. Charlie began to wonder if he had chocolate on his face or something.
Slowly, however, as he sat there being stared at, a new resolve rose in him. He was nearly fifteen, damn it. Kids not that much older than he had fought in wars, had written novels and symphonies, had become fathers. He wasn't just a kid anymore, and he had every right to be there.
"Mr. Eppes? You can go on in now, dear."
The dean was a large man, powerfully built, and Charlie immediately felt a bit intimidated by his sheer presence. But he looked at Charlie with a frank, direct gaze, and Charlie smiled - at least this dean would look him in the eye. He knew how he must look to this man -- gawky from his most recent growth spurt, meticulously combed hair blown askew, the tie his mother had insisted he wear hanging loosely, limply from his neck, the faintest hint of downy facial hair beginning to shadow his jaw -- like a kid. He made himself stand up straight.
The dean stood to greet him, extending his hand. "Ah, Charles Eppes. Or do you prefer Charlie?"
Charlie took the hand and made a split-second decision. "Char--" His voice cracked, and he swallowed and tried again. "Charles, please." He was surprised to find the handshake firm, respectful.
"Well, it's good to finally meet you. I've been looking through your file from Princeton."
Charlie wilted, but said nothing. Of course the dean would have the Princeton information; nonetheless he felt the colour rising to his cheeks as shame welled up in him.
"What I see in this file is an excellent student absolutely wasted on those Princetonian buffoons."
Charlie's head jerked up, and he smiled, a little uncertainly. Did he just call his old profs buffoons?
"You have great potential, Charles, and CalSci is lucky to have you. In ten years the great minds of Fine Hall will be kicking themselves across their academic green for giving you up." The dean smiled, then turned serious again. "There will be some here who won't understand right away - who won't understand you. But they'll come around.
"It isn't going to be easy. We are going to demand just as much from you as any other student. Do you understand?"
Charlie nodded. "Yes, sir. I look forward to it." Even as he said it, he realized it was true. He didn't want to be babied, not any more.
"Now, here at CalSci we have a mentoring program, new this year, pairing experienced faculty members with students who could use a little extra...guidance."
Charlie furrowed his brow, but remained silent. So that was how they were going to get around calling it tutoring. He had no doubt that he was the only student being so 'mentored'.
"Unfortunately," the dean continued, "our pure math faculty members have already been paired with 'mentorees', and so I've placed you with one of our theoretical physicists, for the first semester, anyway, and we'll see how that goes."
Charlie tried to hide his relief. He wasn't the only one. A theoretical physicist? This could be interesting. Or horrible. Maybe both.
"Let's go meet him, then, shall we?" the dean said, leading the way.
As they stood outside the door of the classroom, Charlie shifted anxiously from foot to foot, his mind whirling as he wondered what his new mentor would be like. Someone loud, no doubt, and demanding, someone so far above his level of understanding that he'd wind up being no more than the man's research gopher. He pulled in every scrap of self-confidence he could and resolved not to look like a kid.
Then the door opened, and Charlie looked up to see a rather distracted-looking man, wiry of frame with short curly hair and a precarious armfull of books.
"Professor Fleinhardt, I'd like to introduce you to your newest student, Charles Eppes."
Fleinhardt was smiling; Charlie looked into the older man's eyes and was surprised, softened by what he saw. Professor Fleinhardt was not just looking at him - he was seeing him. He saw Charlie. No one else, not even his mother, though she had come closest - had ever instinctively understood like this. He felt a weight lifted from his shoulders, the weight of all the fears, all the anxiety he had been carrying with him since those first disastrous days at Princeton when his "differentness" had become so much a burden rather than a blessing. But then he realized that Professor Fleinhardt was still staring at him, now somewhat inscrutably. The dean cleared his throat; Charlie looked down, a little dejected. He had read too much into the man's look; he really was just like the others. Charlie should have known better than to get his hopes up. But then Professor Fleinhardt blinked, and pushed his free hand out towards Charlie, wobbling slightly as his books threatened to fall.
"Nice to meet you, Charles," he said, and his voice held true sincerity; he actually did seem pleased. "I'm Professor Fleinhardt."