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Title: First Time For Everything
Author: zubeneschamali
Rating: PG
Genre: Gen
Length: 3,695 words
Characters: Charlie, Don, Alan
Summary: "What do you mean, you've never ridden a horse before?"

A/N: This originally appeared in the Brotherhood 7 zine from Pyramids Press; I thank them for the chance to publish it and for their beta reading. The story is dedicated to R and r for showing me the best time I've had in ages; I miss you guys.

Disclaimer: The characters portrayed herein are the property of the folks at CBS and NUMB3RS. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is one big coincidence. (Note: only one of the above statements is true…)



"What do you mean, you've never ridden a horse before?" The incredulous pitch of Don's voice was matched by the narrowing of his eyes as he turned his head towards the passenger seat of the Suburban.

Charlie sighed and met his gaze. "I've never been on a horse before, Don. Why is that so hard to believe?"

The traffic light they were stopped at changed from red to green, and Don pressed the accelerator. "I don't know," he said more mildly. "I just thought it was something everybody had done at one point or another."

"Well, it's not like we ever went horseback riding as kids," Charlie retorted.

"And obviously the deprivation has scarred you deeply," came Alan's dry tone from the back seat.

"Okay, that does it." Don glanced over his right shoulder before signaling and smoothly changing to the right-hand lane as they approached another intersection.

"Wait, where are you going?" Charlie demanded. The SUV was turning to the right on what appeared to be a random side street, not part of the route to Dodger Stadium. At Alan's suggestion, they were taking advantage of a rare occurrence: the three Eppes men with no work obligations on a day the Dodgers were in town. Charlie had fully expected Don to be called away on a case before they even got to the ballpark. Now it looked like they weren't going there after all.

Don's eyes flickered to the rearview mirror. "Hey Dad, how attached were you to seeing the ball game?"

There was a pause. Then Alan said, "Well, since we haven't bought the tickets yet, I suppose it's okay. But are you sure this is a good idea?"

Charlie whirled around in his seat, craning his neck to look back at his father. "Why does everybody but me know what's going on here?"

"Just relax, Chuck." Don's hand came down on his shoulder. "You'll be fine."

After a few minutes, they made another turn. Now the street was winding up through a residential neighborhood of 1960s apartment buildings intermingled with high hedge walls hiding more luxurious homes. In the middle distance on the left, he could see the large white letters of the Hollywood sign perched up on a hill. "Hey, I've been here before," Charlie said slowly. "It's one of the best places to get a view of the sign if you do a little hiking first."

"Do you remember what you hiked past in order to get to that view?" Alan asked, a note of amusement in his voice.

Charlie stared out through the windshield, thinking it over. He'd been here a couple of winters ago with a colleague visiting from New York, an acquaintance from numerous conferences who was giving a talk at CalSci and wanted to see something uniquely California before heading back to the cold Northeast. So Charlie had consulted the map and found a road that snaked up into the hills of Griffith Park not far from the famous Hollywood sign. He remembered parking at the side of the road and seeing a building fifty yards away he had instantly dismissed as irrelevant, and he couldn't for the life of him recall what it was.

Then they passed a sign at the side of the road, and his eyes widened as the memory finally surfaced. "Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables?" he almost squeaked. Now he remembered clambering up the trail past fresh, steaming grey-green piles and dodging to the side when a horse lumbered past. Since he had never ridden one and had no intention of ever doing so, he hadn't paid much attention to them.

All he remembered was that the animals were very large.

"Yeah, it's practically a historical monument," Don was saying. "Been around here for a long time. I can't believe you've never been up here."

Charlie shrugged as his mind raced, trying to come up with an excuse not to do what he was sure Don was going to try and talk him into doing. "Never had anyone to go with, I guess." He didn't think Larry was the horsey type, and the subject had never come up with Amita. He didn't even know Don knew how to ride a horse.

Alan was apparently thinking the same thing. "So where did you learn to ride, Don?"

"Albuquerque," he replied, guiding the SUV into the only empty parking space left in the dusty roadside lot. "Nicki was really into it, and she persuaded me to give it a shot. I haven't been able to keep up as much as I would like, but I've kinda missed it." He shifted the vehicle into park and grinned. "This is gonna be great." Then he looked over at Charlie and quickly asked, "You're okay with this, right?"

In the quick glance that his brother gave him, Charlie registered a couple of things. First, anyone who didn't know Special Agent Don Eppes would think the man was neutral on the subject. Around his dark sunglasses, his face was practically expressionless. But to someone who knew him the slight uptick at the corners of his lips and the corresponding crinkles at the corners of his eyes were the Don Eppes equivalent of bouncing up and down in his seat.

He could also see traces of hope and even wariness on Don's face. Charlie had been complaining to himself for years that he and his brother never understood each other, and that even once they started spending time together as adults, it was only in the context of FBI work. Now here it was, a golden opportunity to do something just for fun, and he was thinking about chickening out. For God's sake, you've gone street racing in a go-kart and free-climbed in the Sierras, he sternly told himself. This can't be any more dangerous.

He set his chin and said firmly, "Yeah, I've always wanted to try horseback riding."

The full-blown smile on Don's face was as bright as the California sunshine. "Great," he said, clapping a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "You're gonna love it." And Charlie couldn't help but believe that if Don was looking forward to this so much, he was going to love it, too.

Fifteen minutes later, Charlie wasn't quite so sure. They'd signed up for an hour's ride, forked over their credit cards, had their footwear and clothing approved, and signed away their right to sue for anything from a sore rear end to being pitched head-first off the horse. To help with the latter, they each received white headgear that looked like a less-aerodynamic bike helmet. Charlie cinched his in place, wincing at the thought of what it was going to do to his hair. From the smirk Don was giving him, he figured he was thinking the same thing. He rolled his eyes in response, and the smirk grew.

They were standing on a wooden platform at the edge of the corral, waiting for their horses to be led up to them. They would have a guide along on the ride: Brin, a pretty blonde who looked like she wasn't much older than one of Charlie's students and certainly wasn't any taller than him. But she looked completely confident as she led a dusky white horse towards them. "Now, have you boys ridden before?"

Alan spoke first. "I have, but not for quite a while."

"Okay, then Starwood here will be great for you. I'm going to put you in front since you have some idea what you're doing." Her blue eyes twinkled. "How 'bout you two?"

"I've ridden quite a bit, but this will be the first time for Charlie here." Don spoke encouragingly, not in the teasing tone Charlie expected. He turned to the older man and got a reassuring smile in response.

"Okay then, Charlie, we'll put you in the middle and your brother in the back. All right?" He nodded, and she turned to wave across the corral at another guide who was holding the lead rope of a smaller horse with a chestnut brown coat and a dark mane and tail. Charlie watched, holding his breath, as the horse came forward and obediently came to a stop next to him.

It didn't really look that hard. He was standing on an elevated platform so he was already at the height of the stirrups. All he had to do was swing his leg over the saddle and sit down. Charlie put a hand to the top of his head to check one more time that the helmet was securely in place. Then, taking a deep breath and resolutely not looking at either his brother or his father, he reached for the saddle horn, lifted his right leg over the horse's back, and gingerly lowered himself into the saddle.

He hadn't expected that his legs would be spread quite so far apart. No wonder cowboys were bow-legged, if they spent most of their days with this much solid material between their knees. His legs were dangling down at the horse's sides, and he carefully held his feet away, not wanting to accidentally signal the animal to go forward.

"So this here is Widget." Brin had come up next to him and laid a hand on the horse's neck. "He's used to beginners, so you don't have to worry about him bolting off down the trail or anything."

"That's good," Charlie replied quickly. "What, uh, what do I do with my feet?"

"You want to let your legs be straight with the ball of your foot on the stirrup," she replied, reaching up to guide his right foot into the stirrup. Her small, capable hands tightened the strap, and he adjusted his leg like she had told him to. Then she walked around Widget, stroking the long, dark brown nose as she went by, and adjusted the left stirrup as well. "And now you're good to go!" she said brightly. "Jab his sides with your heels to get him moving, pull on the reins to the left or right for direction, and pull on both of them to stop." Then she disappeared behind him.

"You all right there, Charlie?" In front of him, Alan twisted around in his saddle. His horse looked slightly larger than Widget, a dusty cream color with a few brown spots high on his neck. Alan was absentmindedly patting the horse's neck as he spoke.

"Yeah, I'm fine." This wasn't so bad, really. He'd been right to give himself that pep talk in the car. There wasn't anything to worry about. Charlie gave his father a confident grin and took the reins in his hands.

"Okay, we're all set!" Brin moved to the front of their little line and easily climbed into the saddle of her own chestnut brown horse. "Here we go!"

In front of Charlie, Alan's horse stepped forward. Charlie was just wondering if he would have to do anything to get Widget to move when his seat suddenly lurched underneath him. It was kind of like being on an amusement park ride as it pulled away from the station, he thought. There was that same sudden jerk that transitioned into a smoother movement as the initial climb began.

Except unlike a roller coaster, there was a live animal underneath him. Not a mechanical ride that blindly obeyed the laws of physics and stayed on its own track, but a living, breathing being that presumably had its own preferences and dislikes and ways of doing things. Charlie curled his fingers a little tighter around the reins and tried to adjust to the sensation. Maybe Widget would just keep following Starwood like he was doing right now. He relaxed his shoulders and sat back a little. This wasn't so bad.

They made their way out of the stables area and onto a dusty fire road that instantly became a steep uphill climb. "Lean forward, Chuck," Don called from behind him, and Charlie bent forward till he was nearly touching the horse's neck, eliciting a soft chuckle from behind him. He could feel the horse's muscles shifting underneath him, and it was the weirdest sensation. He'd never been carried around by another creature before, and he wasn't sure he liked it. He could get around on his own two feet very well, thank you, and he wasn't keen on relying on someone or something else to move him around. It was a little unnerving.

They made their way up the slope and onto a more level stretch of fire road running along the top of a ridge. "Wow," Charlie breathed out, his nerves momentarily forgotten. Downtown Los Angeles was only a handful of miles away, the metal and glass skyscrapers twinkling in the bright afternoon sun. But in the foreground was rugged, wild terrain, the dusky browns and sage greens of the vegetation in sharp contrast to the glittering blue and sliver buildings of downtown. He'd seen views like this hundreds of times from various vantage points around L.A. But somehow being on horseback made it even more surreal.

"Okay, buddy, let's move it." Don guided his horse past Charlie. "Give him a good nudge in the sides."

Charlie tapped his heels against Widget's sides, but nothing happened.

"Come on, harder than that. Trust me, you're not gonna do any damage to him."

He put an ounce more pressure into it, wincing as he felt his heels contact the horse's flesh. But Widget stayed put, apparently enjoying the view.

"Charlie, just kick him already!"

Exasperated, Charlie thumped his legs inward, and Widget calmly lurched forward, dark brown mane fluttering in the breeze. The horse moved placidly on, but after only a few seconds, Charlie could see he was being left behind. Brin and Alan were chatting about fifteen yards ahead, Don was a few yards behind them on a bay named Tinsel, and the gap was growing all the time. "Come on," he murmured to the horse. "Can we go a little faster?" But the plodding pace continued unchecked.

A moment later, Brin wheeled her horse around and came back to him. "You might want to give him a little extra encouragement," she said cheerfully. "Otherwise we won't get very far before we have to turn around."

"Okay, here goes," he muttered, giving more "encouragement" with his heels. It still felt wrong to exert that much force on an animal, but Widget was a solidly-built creature, and Brin and Don had both assured him he wouldn't be doing any damage.

This time, he was more successful, and Widget was soon moving more briskly, leaving Charlie bobbing up and down on his back. He tensed his leg muscles to try and minimize his vertical motion, but he wasn't going to be able to keep that up for very long. The distance between himself and his family narrowed, and soon Widget was nosing at Tinsel's tail. "Whoa," Charlie said, pulling back on the reins.

The dark brown horse instantly responded and dropped back into the mind-numbingly slow walk of a few minutes ago. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Charlie was again well behind the rest of the group. "Come on, boy," he said, thumping his heels into the horse's sides. Widget obediently kicked it up a notch, Charlie bouncing along with him.

Brin was leading the way, Don and Alan next to each other with a few feet between them, Alan's horse a few feet from the edge of the trail on their right. As they approached, Charlie expected his horse to line up behind Tinsel or Starwood again, and he got ready to rein him in again.

Instead, Widget swung towards the right, to pass them on the outside, where there were only a few feet of gravel and dirt between the hooves of Alan's horse and what looked like a sheer drop-off beyond.

Charlie swallowed back a cry and held on for dear life. They'd been warned that the horses sometimes liked to walk near the edge of the trail, but this was ridiculous. He swore there wasn't enough room for them to pass, but Widget continued his brisk pace, seemingly oblivious to the edge of the world inches away from his hooves. Charlie cast a quick glance at Alan as they passed, whose mild surprise barely registered before they had moved on.

Once they had squeezed through the gap between Starwood and thin air, Charlie expected his horse to move back into the middle of the trail. Instead, he stayed right along the edge, hooves occasionally sending a little stream of dirt and gravel over the edge. Charlie risked a quick look to the right and saw that it wasn't exactly a cliff, more like a 70-degree slope. Like that helps. He was calculating rates of descent and pounds of force before he could help himself.

Pulling hard on the left rein, Charlie tried to guide Widget back to the center of the broad fire road. The horse tugged back and stayed right where it was.

Charlie took a deep breath. Maybe he just had to trust his horse. Hadn't Brin said that this was a beginner's horse, accustomed to people who didn't know what they were doing? For some reason, Widget seemed to prefer living on the edge, as it were, and maybe he'd be better off trusting the animal's instincts. He relaxed as much as he could given how he was bouncing up and down. Slowly, he began to realize that they weren't going to go tumbling off the edge, and that the view was actually quite nice from this vantage point.

In fact, he was kind of having fun.

They were on the top of a ridge, and the bottom of the valley that swept down below them was demarcated with a line of dark green trees, where the precious little rain that fell would eventually be collected. On the other side, he could see a dark grey expanse of charred land. "Hey, that's where the Griffith Park fire was last year, right?"

"Yes, that's right." Brin had caught up to him on his left. "We were worried it was going to head our way, but luckily all we had to deal with was the smoke."

"That must have been scary." The burned-over area looked to be only a mile away as the crow flies--or as the embers fly, to use a more appropriate metaphor. Given how high the wind speeds could get and how parched the vegetation around them appeared to be, the horse ranch had indeed been lucky.

Another little shower of dirt slipped downward from under Widget's hooves, and Charlie realized he'd had enough of riding on the edge. He yanked on the left rein, and the horse followed along this time, veering to the left and slowing down to a sedate walk. Alan and Don soon rode past and Charlie waited a few moments before kicking Widget again and jouncing forward.

It looked like his horse had only two speeds: too slow and too fast.

Still, he was surprised when Brin announced they had reached the turnaround point. It didn't feel like much time had gone by at all. She paused to take a picture of the three of them with Don's cellphone camera, then another with the digital camera Alan had brought along for the ballgame. Charlie was well behind the other two, but he didn't feel confident enough that he could direct Widget up to the other two horses without either bumping into them or nearing the edge of the trail again. So he beamed at the camera from where he was, hoping his hair didn't look too ridiculous under the edges of his helmet.

As Brin was handing Don's cell back to him, it started to ring. "Ah, damn," he said, quickly reaching for it. "Eppes."

Charlie exchanged a quick look with Alan and saw the same expression on his father's face he could feel on his own. At least we had an hour with him.

"Yeah, Colby," Don was saying, frowning off into the distance towards downtown. The frown intensified based on whatever his teammate was saying, and then he let out a sigh. "Okay, but it's gonna take a few minutes." He looked at his watch. "It'll probably be half an hour." Then he looked over at Charlie and Alan and hesitated.

Hoping he was correctly interpreting the look, Charlie waved a hand at him. "We'll call a cab," he said.

Thanks, Don mouthed back at him. "Yeah, Colby, see you then." He flipped the phone shut and slipped it back in his pocket. "Sorry guys, but I gotta go."

Charlie watched open-mouthed as his brother expertly wheeled Tinsel around and took off back down the trail at a gallop, bending over the horse's neck as he went. I had no idea he could do that, he thought admiringly. Nothing had ever surprised him about his big brother's athletic abilities, but this was somehow different, a skill set that required more than individual grace but the capacity to direct the animal as well.

It was pretty cool to watch.

Horse and rider disappeared around a bend in no time, Brin's shout of "Wait!" echoing off the rocky hillside. Then she turned to the two of them. "Would you mind telling me what that was about?" she asked incredulously. "Guests can't just go riding off on their own like that." She looked like she was completely torn between taking off after what appeared to be a wayward customer and staying with the two she still had.

"I'm sorry, we should have mentioned this possibility before," Alan said soothingly. "My son is an FBI agent, and he's pretty much always on duty."

"Really?" The young woman's voice changed from exasperation to admiration. "Wow. So he got called off on a case or something?"

"Something like that," Charlie answered.

"Wow." Brin paused a moment, then reached down to her belt and removed her own cell phone. She quickly told someone back at the stables that a rider would be returning without the group and that it was okay. Hanging up, she said, "All right then, shall we head back?"

The return trip seemed much shorter, but that was always the case. Perceptions of distance were distorted by the familiarity of the route, something Charlie and Larry had discussed at great length on various hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains. Widget continued the annoying habit of going either slower or faster than his rider wanted, but Charlie managed to adjust. Before he knew it, they were riding back down the sloping fire road towards the stables, and this time he knew to lean back in the saddle to better distribute his weight.

He caught Alan looking over at him with a proud smile on his face, and suddenly he felt like a five-year old playing a game of catch, concentrating with all of his might to throw the ball with the right angle and velocity so it would land in his big brother's mitt, Mom and Dad watching from the bench by the koi pond. He'd never had the physical prowess Don did, but with certain activities he could fake it using math as a crutch. He didn't think horseback riding was one of those activities, but he still felt like he'd managed to do all right.

"Too bad Don couldn't stay," he called to his father.

"Yes, I think he would have liked to see you enjoying yourself," Alan replied.

A slow smile spread across Charlie's face. "We'll just have to come back another time," he said confidently, and the smile on Alan's face was as bright as the one he'd gotten earlier from his brother.

Yeah, this wasn't so bad after all.

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
zubeneschamali
Jun. 2nd, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you! :D
aleo_70
Jun. 2nd, 2010 06:55 am (UTC)
The Eppes get (most of) a nice afternoon.

We get the image of Don galloping off on horseback.

A nice trade all round.
zubeneschamali
Jun. 2nd, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
Ha! Yes, I suppose that's a good way to put it. And I'm pretty fond of that particular image myself. :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )