Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Numb3rs characters because they were created by Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton. This story is strictly for fun not profit. In this story I obviously lifted part of the Charlie/Don dialog directly from the end of Backscatter.
Rating: R or M for teenage language
Spoilers: Uncertainty Principle, Assassin, Soft Target, Backscatter, and Hot Shot
Acknowledgment: Thank you for the wonderful beta, jlm110108!
Summary: Written for round one of ladynocturne's summer alphabet fic challenge. The events of Backscatter bring up old high school baseball memories for Don.
"They seem to be coming after you and you alone." -- Detective Gary Walker (Backscatter)
Baseball's a challenge. It was a challenge at age six when I learned to catch pop flies, it was a challenge at sixteen when I developed my stance and swing, and it's still a challenge at nearly thirty-six when I bet on the World Series winner based on preseason play. The difference between success and failure is a fine line to walk. Especially since baseball pits chance against skill and boils everything down into packaged statistics.
Charlie's drawn to statistics like a moth's drawn to flame.
Hell, math's as ingrained in him as rhythm is in dance. It's also impossible to keep him from helping, even if he'd be safer sitting on the sidelines. Charlie's an exceptional tool, but he screams easy victim.
Telling him I'd been taken off of the case may have been insulting and unbelievably stupid, but I'm the gatekeeper. I'm responsible for keeping him out of the line of fire. I'm responsible for keeping him safe. When I lied it at least allowed me a bit of control, if not some peace of mind.
When I'm in the batter's box the pitcher is coming after me. Me alone. The pitcher's job is to send my ass back to the dugout; mine is to use one of the seven legal ways of getting on base to outmaneuver, outthink, and outplay him. The rule is simple: him versus me.
Real life's rules should be as straightforward as baseball's.
As an FBI agent I'm bound by honor and law, but I still must outwit my opponents. However the criminals I chase aren't concerned with the petty rules of legality, or morality. In the twisted world of the Russian mob the dirty trick rules kingdoms. Kingdoms where lynchpins bask in the delusions they will always win and that playing with a man's family is perfectly justified.
Unfortunately, Yuri Koverchenko isn't the first person to turn my protective instincts against me.
I started my first high school varsity game at second base in late spring of '87. Our team was on the verge of making the state playoffs, but in the early innings a halfway decent catch in the third and a walk in the fifth were my meager contributions to our playoff chances. Hardly the stuff of Major League dreams. My only consolation: the opposing pitcher waltzed through the innings with strikeouts, grounders, and pop flies.
One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.
A game of baseball should never resemble a set of ballroom steps.
After a pitching change in the eighth, we managed to string together two consecutive hits. Two outs later, with Matthews and Perez still stranded on the bases, the mood in the dugout soured. Dazzled at my good fortune, I strutted from the on deck circle to the plate. Instead of homering, however, I swung for the fences and dug myself into a 0-2 count chasing low 'n outside pitches.
I was on the verge of becoming another easy three.
Remembering Coach Broomberg's pregame pep talk about the importance of the little things, (and Charlie's ever annoying statistics) I decided to use a two-strike swing to bring the runners home. I grimaced because I shouldn't be in the hole in the first place. I was a much better player than that. I scuffed my cleats in the chalked batter's box, adjusted my stance to make sure I kept my weight back, and waited for the pitch. The pitcher wound up and a split second later the ball sailed towards me.
The ball struck the sweet spot and I finished the follow through with no stinging vibration. As I rounded first, Matthews trotted in from third and Perez also scored easily. By the time the opposing team's right fielder returned the ball to the infield, I stood on second barely winded.
"Alright Donnie!" Did Dad have to yell so loud?
My teammates exchanged high-fives as Matthews and Perez made it back to the bench. In the stands Mom cheered and Charlie, perched on the uppermost bleacher, meticulously marked my double in his scorebook.
However, the best part was Val Eng on her feet celebrating.
Against my better judgment I broke into a self-satisfied smile. After weeks of playing it cool, I finally asked her to come watch me play. I was amazed she actually showed up and happy too—even if she was sitting next to my bratty brother. Still clapping, she sat back down and said something to Charlie. He nodded in agreement and playfully bumped his shoulder against hers.
That wiped the grin off my face.
Not wanting to watch, I brushed some imaginary dirt off my pant leg for effect. When I glanced into the dugout Kane Decker, still gripping his bat fresh off another strikeout, glared daggers at me. No one in the dugout gave him a high-five.
I knew for a fact that a Major League scout sat somewhere in the stands that night because Coach confirmed it during batting practice. Decker, Perez, and the latest crop of seniors were told he was scouting for either the Mariners, or the Rangers. They'd decided that being drafted by cellar-dwelling Seattle would a cheap joke, but Texas wouldn't be so bad. They'd spent the rest of batting practice gloating about how they were halfway to the draft already.
They thought a homerun could provide them with instant riches, that they were the only stars, that they'd have to rely on no one, and that they'd never have to sacrifice their at bat to protect the runner. As much as I craved the fame of a game winning homerun, the fact is baseball's a team game. It's about making choices that favor the odds, about protecting the runners, and most importantly about working as a team.
For the first time in my life I truly believed I would have been a fool had I tried to grab for glory.
After we won, and after the joys of a quick locker room shower, I watched an older gentleman wearing nondescript clothing and carrying a scorebook shake Coach Broomberg's hand. He caught my eye and gave me a warm smile as well as a nod before he turned away.
I was just a Sophomore. Perhaps I really could be drafted?
Reliving the hug Val gave me immediately after the game ended, I dug the keys to my VW out of my sports bag, hiked my bag higher on my shoulder, and expertly spun the key ring about my finger. Dreaming of gorgeous groupies, batting .400, and record breaking seasons I sauntered towards the parking lot. Decker would be jealous as hell.
The keys nearly dropped to the ground when I turned around to see Mom's expression. She wore the stern look which said both "I want you to do something" and "you're Charlie's older brother." I should have known better.
"I thought you'd already left."
"Your father and I have a meeting with one of Charlie's tutors. Your game ran late so your father's already inside," she said and gestured to the school building. "I need you to take Charlie home tonight."
A few words of congratulations would have been nice. Why did it always seem like Charlie was the center of the world? Everything came back to him: school, friends, family. I won the game tonight, but instead of celebrating, I had to baby-sit my dork of a brother.
"Or you could play a little ball with Charlie, like we talked about this weekend."
No! God. No. "Tonight?"
She frowned. "I told you this morning that the two of you would be on your own after the game."
Charlie was still hunched over sitting on the empty bleachers absorbed in tallying up the totals for the game. He looked obsessive, geeky, annoying. Argh!
"Come on... Not now." Not now, please not now. I distinctly remember wanting to beg, but being too proud to actually do so.
"Don't whine. Besides why not now?"
"Because…" Val finally came to a game, because I didn't want to share baseball with Charlie, because tonight was supposed to be about me.
"Because?" she prompts me.
"Because I had plans," I mumble to the ground.
"And those plans are?" I didn't have a prayer of getting out of this and she and I both knew it.
Mom's frown gave way. "Thank you, honey." She kissed me on the cheek and it took all my willpower not to wipe the moisture away. "You had a wonderful hit this evening."
"Thanks." For nothing.
With hardly a backwards glance, she headed into the school.
Kicking the gravel, I walked over to the bleachers. Over to the brother I couldn't get rid of, couldn't avoid, and (as I was reminded daily) was in my life whether I liked it or not. As I got closer Charlie put down the scorebook and rummaged through his backpack. He pulled out The Notebook. It contained all the notes about the patterns he'd found in players' actions over the past few years. The section about me is extensive because Charlie tends to focus on me and my game. Lost in his own fantasy fairyland, he chewed on the end of his pen for a moment before furiously scribbling.
Charlie liked to help.
"Hey," I grunted by way of greeting.
"It worked! I told you it would," Charlie said and I cringed at his pride and exuberance. "You did much better than Decker. His balance was all wrong and he ended up lunging forward. My statistics show…"
"Yeah?" I rolled my eyes and stopped listening. Stemming the tide of endless statistics was probably too much to hope for. I shrugged my bag off my shoulder and onto the bleacher bench beside Charlie.
"…believe that it's possible for a batter's stance to predict the number of walks he'll get over the course of a season. There were only three walks tonight, but that tells me something, tells me that—"
It was time to put a stop to his prattling. "Charlie."
"—it was all wrong to focus… on…" he trailed off. "You don't wanna hear about my ideas about walk percentage, do you?"
Charlie shut his notebook and shoved it, along with the scorebook, into his backpack. Don Eppes: puppy kicker extraordinaire. Isn't guilt a wonderful companion?
"Is it time to go then?" he asked. "Mom said you'd be taking me home tonight."
"Uhhh yeah, but before we do that I was wondering," I gritted my teeth, "if you'd like to go out onto the field and try out some of your theories?"
Charlie's eyes lit up briefly, but then he looked away and toed the bottom bleacher with his shoe. "You're just asking because Mom made you."
I bit back a groan. "That's not true."
"I heard you arguing last weekend." What was I supposed to say to that?
I sucked in a deep breath, feeling like I was eating crow. As an answer I unzipped my bag, fished around for a loose ball, and pulled out my bat. "Your advice worked tonight, didn't it?" I held the bat to him as a peace offering.
He took it.
"Don't you want to test out a few of your ideas?"
He nodded and smiled shyly. "I do, but…" he twisted the metal bat in his hands.
"There really isn't anyone here to watch," I coaxed.
"There are still people around," he said pointing to the gym and the locker room.
"They're not gonna come back to the field," I fucking coaxed again! "You want to, don't you?"
I tossed the baseball a few feet into the air and caught it easily. "Then let's get to it." The sooner we started the sooner we could leave.
While I took my place on the pitching mound, Charlie trotted out to the plate. I scuffed the dirt digging my foot into a sound position next to the rubber. Charlie set up in an even batting stance, but I could tell he didn't have his weight on the balls of his feet and that his hips and shoulders weren't quite level.
"Like this?" he asked.
"That's good," I didn't care to correct him. "You ready?"
He nodded and I tried to convince myself it'd be better for him to figure his batting stance out on his own…hands on learning and all that crap. I hurled the ball towards Charlie, er home plate.
Yes, home plate.
Regardless of my noble intentions, the ball sailed far to the left, slammed against the backstop, and—after the crash—Charlie swung.
I was obviously more furious then I first thought about being stuck coaching my baby brother through the mechanics of baseball if I'd missed the plate that completely. Ever eager, Charlie scrambled over to the ball and threw it back to me.
To my credit, the second toss was much softer and right over the heart of the plate. It should have been just as easy to hit off a tee. However, Charlie wailed and missed.
"Here batter, batter, batter!"
Charlie stiffened. I whirled around to see Decker and Perez, freshly showered, but still reeking of arrogance stroll down from the school and stop to laugh behind the safety of the chain link fence.
Shit! I really didn't want to have to put up with them that night. Instead of allowing Charlie to throw the ball back I went and got it myself.
"He's doing a fucking good job of striking out, Eppes. I though your baby brother was supposed to be a genius," Decker said when I got close enough to spit at. Perez chortled next to him.
"Don't be an ass, Decker. Besides," I put on my best shit-eating grin, "I thought it was an excellent impression of you."
Turning my back on my so-called teammates, I walked to the plate and took pity on Charlie. I had him set up again, but this time I put my hands on his shoulders to correct his stance. "Come on Buddy, put your hips level with your shoulders," I instructed.
"That's good" I said. This time I meant it. "Keep your head steady too."
He nodded again and that caused his stance to wiggle.
"Don't nod," I cautioned. "And make sure you tuck your chin on your shoulder."
"Come on Chuck, Chuck, Chuckie!" Decker taunted.
I grimly returned to the pitching mound and all the while Decker and Perez kept up a chant of "Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!"
When I lobbed the ball towards him this time, Charlie actually managed to make contact. Regrettably, the ball bounced on the first base side of me and skidded to a stop at the edge of the outfield grass.
"That was such an easy double play," Decker hollered.
I sighed, trotted to the edge of the grass, and snagged the ball.
"I'm amazed he hit it at all," said Perez.
"Especially since everyone knows nerds suck at baseball," Decker replied none too quietly. "Shouldn't you be home studying, or watching Disney cartoons? You're a nerd, aren't you little Eppes?"
It was time to end this. Instead of returning to the mound I walked to the batter's box. "You ready to be done?"
Charlie gulped. "We can be done."
I handed him the baseball. "Then why don't you put the bat and ball away and gather your stuff?" I gestured to my bag and his backpack still in the bleachers. "I'll be there in a sec."
Once Charlie was safely out of hearing distance I went up to the chain link fence separating me from Decker and Perez. I deliberately blocked Charlie from their view. The metal weaving of that fence was all that protected Decker's nose from my right hook.
"You got a problem with me, Decker, then you take it up with me. Don't fuck around and go through my brother."
"Big words, Eppes. You willing to back them up?"
"And will you be able to protect your nerd of a brother at the same time?"
What the hell kind of a threat was that? Of course I would be. "Who hit the double, and who struck out?"
Decker grabbed the fence with his fat fingers. "You got lucky."
I turned away and resisted the urge to look back when the fence rattled. "Eppes! Get back here, Eppes!"
"He's not worth it," Perez said to Decker.
"You're right." The entire fence shook when Decker finally let go. "Bastards, like him, with no sportsmanship never are. You hear that Eppes? You're as Disney as Donald fucking Duck!"
I balled my fists, but took the high road.
I heard Decker mutter, "You're right, 'Ez. You're fucking right," as he and Perez toddled away with as much false dignity as they could muster.
"Don, what was I doing wrong?" Charlie asked when I arrived at the bleachers.
"Nothing. Haven't I told you before that a good swing is difficult to master? You just need a little more practice. You did nothing wrong. They were just acting like fuckers."
Charlie's eyes got big and wide. "You know Mom doesn't want you swearing."
"Mom's not here, is she?"
"I guess not," he replied and put on his backpack. Charlie turned to watch Decker and Perez leave. I knew the shadows they cast over Charlie would be with me for a long time to come. No, Mom's not here.
And I'm the one who is in charge of protecting Charlie. I hoisted the strap of my game bag back over my shoulder. "You ready to go home, Buddy?" I turned slightly and looked towards Charlie.
He nodded and trailed me into the parking lot. "You did it again," he commented as he took a few quick steps to rush and catch up with me.
"Did what?" I asked as we reach the car.
"Called me Buddy."
I opened the car door, threw my bag into the backseat, slid into the driver's seat, and leaned over to unlock the passenger side. Charlie climbed in and looked over at me expectantly.
"Well, you are."
Charlie's face broke into a big, silly grin as I put the key in the ignition and the car roared to life. "Was there really a Major League scout at the game?"
Charlie paused for a moment. "That was some double down the right field line, Don."
"Yes. Yes, it was."
I pulled the car out of parking lot before he spoke again. "I never should have tried to bat."
"Don't say that."
"I could hardly hit the ball. All I managed to do was hit into 'an easy double play'" he quoted Decker and looked out the car window and watched the world go by. "I'm still no closer on identifying what part of the batting stance is more related to walks."
"You just need a little practice that's all," I reassure him.
"I don't want to try again, if I'm only going to ground into double plays."
"Well, you don't need worry about Decker again. He's not going to bother you."
"That would be statistically possible, but unlikely."
Damn the statistics! "I'll take care of it."
Before the week was out Decker and I exchanged black eyes as well as detentions. I remember standing in front of Coach Broomberg, ears still ringing and still seeing double, sulking through a lecture about honor and fighting. However, Decker got what he wanted.
Coach wasn't too thrilled with the "fact" I instigated a fight during the middle of practice. I didn't start a game again until my Junior year. Instead I spent hours between then and Decker's graduation perfecting the art of folding paper airplanes.
Koverchenko, like Decker before him, figured out how to play me like a fiddle. And fool that I am I jumped to their beat.
Their guile would almost be impressive if it wasn't such a deadly game, if it wasn't such a deadly dance. I'm at least accustomed—but I'll never be comfortable— with the fact I'm an open target.
I should be the only target. But reality is I'm not.
Perez was right.
It wasn't worth it. Is serving and protecting such an ingrown instinct I failed to realize when I'd be hurting instead of helping?
Charlie, ivory tower and all, is his own man. For some reason, and if I'm honest with myself, the reason is wounded pride, it rankles that my baby brother solved a problem which was mine to solve. He did my job; he protected me.
Ironically it was another double—off a high, hangin' breaking ball that seemed larger than the size of a grapefruit—almost seven years later which convinced me I'd be better off with the FBI. I traded one challenge for another. Protecting a runner to protecting my brother.
"Hey Chuck you need some help back there? Come on Susie homemaker, we're ready to eat." I call out as I walk into the kitchen. As I see Charlie stuff his hands into oven mitts I'm struck with how much I've sheltered him over the years. And how much I still do.
When did he grow up?
It's time to take the kid gloves off. "You remember, Kane Decker?"
"From high school?" Charlie opens the oven and picks up the dish of potatoes. He gestures for me to grab a mat for them.
I grab it and then snag a beer from the 'fridge. "Yeah."
"What about him?"
I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry for trying to take you off the case."
"What's that have to do with Decker?"
"Doesn't matter. Let's go eat, Chuck," I say and usher him through the door to the dinner table.
"If you call me Chuck one more time I swear…"
"How about Chuckie?"
"How about I call you Donald?"
"How about I call you nerd?"
"How about I call you jock?"
Charlie, like baseball, is a challenge. At age six I found it a challenge to adjust to his presence, at sixteen it was a challenge to be in high school with him, and at nearly thirty-six he's still a challenge when we work together. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I smile. "Brother."