Title: Life After Death
Disclaimer: All characters from the wildly popular CBS television series "numb3rs" are respectfully borrowed and marinated in my head.
Summary: Oneshot. Fair Warning: My head is a bad neighborhood to be in, at the moment..
Charlie sat on the third tier in the small bleacher section that faced the batting cage. He was doing one of his favorite things in the world -- watching Don hit -- but the activity was not infusing Charlie with the good feeling it usually did. Rather, he winced every time the custom-made wood bat connected with the cowhide baseball. He half-expected the leather to split off the sphere and fly back into Don's face. That would definitely not be good, since Don's face had apparently been chiseled from stone itself and would no doubt crack under the pressure. The solid thwacks of bat-meeting-ball echoed so loudly in the summer evening, Charlie covered one ear with a hand. Don was going to break the bat their mother had given him when he signed his minor-league contract -- if he didn't kill himself, first.
He was, after all, pushing hard at 40. He worked a stressful job. His recent trade of field work for a desk hadn't improved the stress level, but made it worse. Charlie was surprised anyone had thought it would be otherwise. Don hated administration, paperwork, bureaucracy...and, he was discovering, supervising junior agents with agendas. Charlie sighed, admitting to himself that he knew why Don had done it. His brother had known he would hate it, but their father was close to 80 years old now, and Don wanted to be more available.
Poor Dad. He never had gotten those grandchildren. Don was as determinedly single as ever, his last serious relationship with Liz ending almost two years ago when she had accepted a transfer to Las Vegas. Don didn't even date that much anymore, and that broke Charlie's heart as much as anything else. When he had been seeing Amita, he and Don had talked once about potential marriage, and family. Don had admitted that he hoped to have a wife and children someday. What had happened to that dream? What had become of his brother?
The bench sank a little as someone sat beside him, and Charlie was startled. He had been concentrating on Don so hard, he hadn't even noticed David's approach. "He's really hurting," the agent murmured. "I'm worried about him."
Charlie nodded. "Me, too." He looked fully at Sinclair and his eyes softened. "How have you been, David? I've missed you."
The bald man beside him did not respond to the question, but continued his original train of thought. "I wish he'd...I don't know" He snorted a bitter laugh. "Get over it? Hell, I'm not over it. I can't imagine what it's like for him. This was always his worst nightmare."
Charlie protested. "It wasn't his fault. No-one thinks that. He always did the best he could." His attention was diverted when Don swung so wildly and with such force that he spun around twice and crashed to the ground.
Charlie gasped and David stood next to him. "Oh, hell. I'd better get down there."
He lifted one foot to move, then stopped, and Charlie stared at him with horror. "What are you doing? What's taking so long?"
David sank to the bench again, wiping his hand across his forehead. "Damn. He's crying."
Charlie turned his attention back to the batting cage, and he could indeed see Don's shoulders shaking. He had not moved from his position on the ground. His head hung low and occasionally, a gutteral sob could be heard all the way up into the bleachers. Charlie blinked back tears of his own. "Oh. Donnie." He reached out a hand to shake David's knee, not quite connecting. "Please! Can't you help him?"
David did not move or respond to the question, and the next thing Charlie knew he was kneeling in the dirt beside Don. His brother's cries sounded even harsher now that he was this close, and Charlie reached for him, intending to pull him into his arms. "Please don't, Donnie," he whispered. "Don't do this to yourself."
Charlie sat back on his heels in horror when his hands passed through the solid flesh-and-bone that was Don.
He always forgot this part.
He always forgot that he was dead.
He made a grunt of distress and tried to think of a way to make Don feel him. Don sniffed and lifted a hand to wipe at his nose, then scooted backward until he was leaning against the rear of the batting cage. His tears were slowing, and he tilted his head and let it slam back against the mesh. Charlie scrambled over to sit as close to him as he could, momentarily considering sitting on Don's lap. He decided against it, because he wanted to study his brother's face. Every time he saw him, lately, Charlie found himself memorizing that face all over again.
So he would never forget.
David came into his line of vision again, as he lowered himself to sit cross-legged next to Don. "He wouldn't want this," his old friend said.
Don jerked his head up and his eyes flashed fire. "Shut-up! I'm tired of people telling me what he would want and what he wouldn't want! He was my brother! Mine!"
David spoke sadly. "He always will be, Don. And you should know better than anyone that I'm right. About both things."
Don's shoulders slumped in defeat and he let the silence extend for several minutes before he responded in a bitter voice. "If I had put my foot down on the whole consulting stuff, I wouldn't have to imagine what Charlie would want. He could tell me himself."
David protested. "Don, he wasn't even consulting for us. The CDC called him in -- he did gigs for them before he ever did stuff for us. How do you think it would have stopped him if you'd kept him out of FBI cases?"
"As soon as I found out about the other agencies he worked with, I should have made him stop everything," he said stubbornly. "Shit, I should have let him keep working on 'P vs. NP' back when Mom was sick. That's the kind of thing he was supposed to be doing -- making his mark in mathematics history."
David snorted lightly. "Come on. Like he didn't? Dr. Charles Eppes' work will be studied for years. Larry says his cognitive emergence research is light years ahead of current academia. When the Duke Mathematical Journal got their hands on it, they decided to underwrite a book! Just think -- Charlie's third book in his field. That's making a mark, dude."
"They should never have let him get that close to a live sample," Don growled, changing the subject. "What were they thinking? Keep the asset safe, anyone in our line of work should know that."
David thought about that for a while, then shrugged. "You're right, of course. But...Charlie had a way of getting past all of us, when he wanted something badly enough. Look at all he was exposed to on our turf. Snipers. Bombers. The Russian Mob. Double agents..."
"Stop it!," shouted Don. "That's enough!"
David awkwardly patted Don's knee. "I'm just saying. I'm sure the CDC did the best they could to control the asset."
Don sighed heavily and hung his head again. When he spoke, David had to concentrate hard to catch all the words. "He was supposed to be here for me, always. I was supposed to be an uncle to his children, and he was supposed to always have my back. My fail-safe position. I'm not sure how to do this without him -- and I'm not sure I want to."
Platitudes and cliches scattered across David's mind like gunshots, but he let them go. They had no real power, and he knew it. He finally settled for a simple, "I know."
Don raised his head slightly, and Charlie was surprised to see a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I can feel him right now. It's almost like he's sitting right next to me." The smile turned into a frown. "That's really what scares me most...that someday, he won't feel so real. Someday, I won't remember anymore. I pay the bill on his cell phone and keep it charged, just so I can call and listen to his voice every now and then."
Charlie stared at his brother in wonder, and David nodded briefly. "You should take that to digital forensics. One of the techs can pull it off for you and burn you an audio DVD or something."
Don looked at David with interest. "You don't think I'm crazy?"
David smiled and shook his head. "Not unless you call it several times a day." He looked momentarily worried. "You don't, do you?"
This time Don's smile was a little more pronounced. "Nah. Really, I've only done it a few times -- not for months, now. I just want to have it, in case I need it."
"Makes sense," David agreed. "Modern technology can be a wonderful thing." The two sat in silence for another while before Sinclair continued the conversation. "Sitting right next to you, huh?"
"Yeah," Don admitted somewhat sheepishly. "Sometimes I get a really strong sense of him."
David leaned his own head back against the cage and smiled. "I'll bet he is," he announced. "The Charlie I knew? Stubborn as hell and completely devoted to you. Wouldn't surprise me a bit if he was still hangin' around."
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A/N: My brother drowned in the summer of 1974. For the record? He still feels real.