Trouble Magnets were stubborn creatures; it was part of their intrinsic nature. On an individual basis, it was endearing and could be downright adorable, although Jack O'Neill would cut out his tongue before admitting that. As a group, though, stubbornness was a pain in the ass where Trouble Magnets were concerned. Organize a group of them that were intent on being obstinate and you had a disaster in the making.
"So, in summary," Blair Sandburg adjusted his glasses as he checked his notes. "We feel that this year's annual Fourth of July picnic softball game should be TMs vs Defenders because it allows us to interact in a cooperative manner with other men in the same social category, provides an opportunity to dispel some unfortunate misconceptions about TM physical prowess, and offers a refreshing change from the usual mixed team match-up."
"Besides," Nick Stokes added as he casually bounced a baseball bat against his calf. "We want to beat you old fellas into the ground."
Blair grinned. "That too."
The TMs had waited until the summer holiday picnic before presenting their idea for a change in the annual softball game. Usually the contest was something like military vs civilian or West coast vs East coast. The exact organization of the game changed every year, but one constant was that each Trouble Magnet and the man that defended him were on the same team.
Jack took a look at the enthusiastic faces of the TMs arrayed behind Blair Sandburg and knew he was screwed. Not wanting to go down in flames alone, he turned to his fellow Defenders. "What do you think, fellas?"
A small sea of blank faces stared back at him. Defenders tended to stick together on big issues, to protect the TMs as much as possible from their own wild ideas, but there were limits. Each Defender knew if he said no, that he'd be sleeping alone that night.
"Jesse's pretty athletic," Steve Sloan was the first to answer. "And it's not that I think he couldn't hold his own on another team, but I like to play with him. . . ."
For a moment, TMs and Defenders were united while they snickered at him. The big man blushed right up to the roots of his blond hair. "You know what I meant!"
"Nick can more than hold his own in any sports competition, " Grissom stated, but then was grave as he added, "I do worry about Greg, though."
The was a squawk of protest from the young man in question, but it was overridden by Gibbs stepping forward.
"Let's just cut to the chase here," Gibbs said with his characteristic bluntness. "Having Jackson and Sandburg on the same team is a mistake of biblical proportions. "
"Come on, Gibbs," Tony DiNozzo protested. "That's an exaggeration. "
"Ya think, DiNozzo?" Gibbs retorted. "Then can you explain what happened with the water balloons?"
"That wasn't their fault," Tony defended his friends. "Nobody knew that new Kirk kid had a latex allergy. The old Kirk didn't."
"Be that as it may," Jason Gideon chimed in. "It does set a dangerous precedent."
"It's not a problem." Daniel had been standing with the TMs, but stepped forward. He held up one arm, which despite the warm weather was clad in a long-sleeved shirt. Daniel pulled the fabric back to reveal he was wearing an Ace bandage on his wrist.
As one the Defenders gasped and Jack winced. He hadn't asked Daniel to hide his injury, but in deference to Jack's pride, Daniel had anyway. An injury to a TM, while often inevitable, was a Defender's worst nightmare.
"I'm sure it wasn't your fault," Mac Taylor clapped Jack on the shoulder. "Happens to the best of us."
In fact, it wasn't Jack's fault and, if not for his efforts, Danny would have lost the whole arm, not just have a sprained a wrist. Even so, Jack felt as though he'd let his lover down.
"Thanks," Jack replied to Mac, scuffling his foot into the dirt. After heaving a big sigh, he lifted his face to address the group again. "So, since Danny's grounded this year, the whole Sandburg/Jackson effect isn't a factor. Any other objections?"
There was a general shuffling of feet and low murmurs, but no one was brave enough to come forward.
"Well, then," Jack announced. "I guess it's TMs against the Defenders. May the best men win."
"Sweet!" Van Ray pumped his arm in a victory gesture. "We'll be the skins; you guys'll be the shirts."
"Dude," Deaq put his hand on Van's arm, stopping the other man from lifting his shirt over his head. "It's baseball, everybody wears shirts."
"You sure?" Van looked at him doubtfully.
Deaq looked imploringly at Jack and Jack nodded. "He's right. In baseball, the teams are easy enough to tell apart without the whole skins and shirts thing."
Van's shoulder's slumped. "Man, that sucks." He brightened almost immediately. "We're still going to cream you guys."
As Van jogged over to join the excited TMs, Deaq clapped Jack on the shoulder. "Thanks, man."
"No problem," Jack assured him.
Deaq chuckled. "Van's shucking his shirt every time I turn around. You'd think he'd build up a good tan, but he's either white or red. We go through sunblock like you wouldn't believe."
Daniel came up to them, so Deaq went to join the other Defenders. Jack wrapped an arm around Daniel's shoulders and pressed a chaste kiss to his temple. "I'm sorry you don't get to play this year."
The younger man shrugged. "There's always next year. Besides, this way I can catalog each group's dynamics and monitor how the level of play fluctuates depending on the interaction between social strata." Jack gave Daniel the stink eye and Danny laughed. "I'm going to enjoy watching."
"Then why didn't you just say that?" Jack grumbled, kissing Daniel again. As he did, he noticed a small altercation going on in the open area between where the two teams were having their pre-game strategy sessions.
"The hell I am!"
"Why are we still arguing about this? It's so obvious that it's ridiculous!"
Danny sighed and disengaged, gently pushing Jack towards the arguing couple. "You better break that up."
"Damn," Jack muttered. Frustration made his steps quicker as he approached the squabbling young men. "Sam, Dean, knock it the hell off!"
Sam pointed at his brother. "He refuses to play on the TM team."
"That's because I'm not the girl in this relationship, " Dean glared at the younger Winchester. "You are. You play with the TMs."
Jack had just about had it with the siblings. Neither admitted to being a TM, but they couldn't both be Defenders. "I have two words for you boys: Bobby. Singer."
That shut them up. There had been repeated threats to declare them both TMs and Bobby their Defender. It was unusual to have a TM/Defender relationship that wasn't sexual, but not unheard of. Neither Winchester seemed too eager for that arrangement, though, so the threat of Bobby was usually enough to quiet them down for a while.
"Dean, today you're playing for the TMs," Jack declared and Sam smirked at Dean's grumble of protest. "And wipe that look off your face, Sam. The only reason that you're playing for the Defenders is that you've got long arms. Danny Messer would have been a pro baseball player if he hadn't been injured; the TMs have the advantage here."
"Are you saying that Sam's a better baseball player than me?" Dean asked, a dangerous glint in his eye.
"I'm saying that he's younger than most of the Defenders and has arms like a gorilla," Jack stated. "They're going to need all the help they can get."
Dean's head swiveled as he compared the two groups. Seeing that the Defenders' average age was quite a bit higher than that of the TWs, he slowly smirked. "Have fun with the geezers, Sammy."
Without a backward glance, Dean headed off to join the TWs.
"Thanks," Sam said to Jack. He looked grateful and relieved, which immediately set off an alarm in Jack's head. He didn't want Sam to read more into that decision than there really was.
Jack gave the younger man a wary look. "Don't think that this is proof of which one of you is a TM – I've still half a mind to call Bobby Singer."
Sam sighed. "You know, maybe you should."
It wasn't the come-back that Jack was prepared for. "What?"
"Dean needs someone to look out for him," Sam shrugged before giving Jack a searching look. "You said someone can be a Defender without the sex part, right?"
Sam's shoulders straightened. "Right. If Dean won't accept looking after from me, then I guess Bobby will just have to do."
After giving Jack a last nod, Sam trotted over to the other Defenders. Jack watched him with a speculative look. Maybe Sam was in the right group after all.
"You realize that Dean will pitch a hissy of astronomical proportions, " Daniel warned him. "Which, on second thought, might prove that he's a TM after all."
"How'd you know what I was thinking?" Jack sputtered. "I had my best admiral face on."
"I love you," Daniel kissed him quickly. "And I always know what you're thinking."
Jack leered at him. "What am I thinking now?"
Daniel smacked him with his good hand. "That's easy."
After a few minutes, Jack whistled the two teams in. "Okay, let's play ball. Who's first at bat?"
"Wait a minute," Jim Ellison protested. "Who's the umpire?"
"Me," Jack pointed a thumb at his own chest.
"And me," Daniel piped up. Jack gave him an incredulous look, but Daniel just returned it him calmly. "I'll call the Defender pitches and you call the TM ones. That ought to keep everybody happy."
"All right, as long as nobody gets upset over any calls," Jack glared at the Defenders, putting them on notice. He didn't care if Daniel called a ball when it was the most perfect strike ever pitched; none of them better even think of yelling at Danny. As one, the Defenders took a look at his expression and took a step back.
"Okay, we've got that settled," Jack said. "Shall we begin, gentlemen?"
"Who bats first?" Daniel asked.
The two teams looked at each other, one group defiant and the other protective.
"You can't both go first." Jack threw up his hands in frustration. He dug into his pocket. "We're going to flip a coin. Danny'll call it."
Daniel neatly snatched the quarter out of Jack's fingers. "I'll toss it; Jack'll call it."
Jack rolled his eyes at Daniel's antics, but didn't protest. It didn't take long for the toss to take place and, within moments, the Defenders were determined to be first at bat.
"Don't look so glum," Jack murmured to Steve Sloan as the other looked dismayed. "This way, the TMs get the last at bat. You know, in case they're behind in the ninth inning."
He winked at the big detective and Steve grinned as he took Jack's meaning. It went against the Defenders' natures to go ahead of their TMs, but in this case it was actually a plus. Jack might be in charge of the entire group, but he was still a Defender and had a particular bias.
The first inkling Jack had of trouble was when Gil Grissom was the first Defender at bat. Grissom was more athletic than his bookish reputation would suggest, but he wasn't exactly a hitting powerhouse either. Sure enough, Grissom struck out in three pitches.
"Next time, Gris," Nick Stokes murmured in encouragement as Grissom walked away. The other CSI was the TMs' catcher.
Nick, at least, didn't have the same suspicions that Jack had. Then again, TMs were trusting by nature. By the time the next two Defenders were also struck out, however, even some of the TMs appeared leery of their good luck.
"Hey, you're smoking hot out there," Jesse Travis complimented Danny Messer as the teams were switching positions.
"Maybe," Danny gave a wary look at Jack Malone, who'd been the last to fail at bat. "Seems to me some of these guys were harder to strike out last year."
If the Defenders seemed not to be able to hit the ball, when it was the TMs turn at bat, they appeared unable to miss it. TM after TM got on base, whether it was due to walking or a hit that was mysteriously fumbled in the field. It took a very long time for the inning to end and, by that time, the TMs were ahead 0-8.
"Oh, come on!" Rodney McKay claimed as he threw his bat down in frustration. "You call that a pitch? Even Eppes got on base and everyone knows he can't hit anything."
"It doesn't matter if it was a good pitch or not, Rodney," Daniel retorted. "You took a swing at it."
Jack snickered. In fact, McKay had needed to take a step out of his position to swing at a pitch that was so bad that it almost seemed wild.
With their unbelievable good luck coupled with the Defenders' ineptitude at their first bat, most of the TMs were aware that something was going on. Each TM glared at his Defender, who – to a man – ignored it.
Jim Ellison was the next Defender at bat and he continued the pattern of swinging at any pitch, only to miss. The TMs looked at each other and murmured softly as the sentinel walked away from home plate.
"Subtle," Jack murmured as Ellison sauntered by on his way back the bench. He knew damn well with his freaky eyesight that Jim should have had no problem hitting the ball.
Ellison grinned, safe to do so with his back to the TMs. "I hated to let the team down."
Jack snorted. "Uh-huh. They're not dumb, you know." Ellison just shrugged.
The next Defender up was Gibbs, but before he could get his bat raised, Tony DiNozzo called to him from third base, the position he'd chosen. From Tony's leer when he'd announced where he'd be playing, Jack was certain his choice of third base had nothing to do with his skill set, but everything to do with the slang meaning of the term.
"Gibbs, you need to remember Rule 327," Tony reminded his Defender.
Jack grinned. Gibbs' infamous rules had grown exponentially since the ex-Marine had become Tony's Defender.
"327?" Gibbs retorted. "I don't remember a 327."
"It's new," Tony's smile was not nice. "It states that if you strike out on purpose, that you'll be polishing your own bat until Labor Day."
The rest of the TMs nodded vigorously and Gibbs shrugged. He and the rest of the Defenders were well and truly busted. Gibbs, at least, was too pragmatic to try and wiggle out of it.
"Wouldn't dream of throwing the game, DiNozzo," Gibbs claimed. "Ooo-rah."
"Good," Tony grinned. "Because I kind of like keeping your bat polished."
After that, the game settled into a more reasonable pattern. Gibbs got a base hit and, after him, Sam Winchester doubled. The TMs did a good job at defense and came out of the inning with the Defenders only scoring a couple of runs.
By the time the game was over, Jack was exhausted and he hadn't even played. It was tiring, though, watching the other Defenders' frustration about not being able to protect their lovers the way they wanted to. Some Defenders, predictably enough, didn't honor the boundaries that came with being on a different team as their TM.
"McClane, I'm fine," Matt Farrell had protested when John McClane ran out to third base to check on him after Matt had slid to safety. "Geez, you weren't this overprotective when people were throwing helicopters at us."
"I decide when you're fine, Matty," McClane had told him sternly. "People have broken a leg doing a slide."
Matt stopped protesting and just smiled fondly as McClaine checked him over. Finally, the Defender was satisfied that his TM was intact. Even so, McClane couldn't help but brush the dust off Matt's ass before heading back to the sidelines.
A little while later, Steve Sloan took issue with Jack announcing Jesse out when there was a close call at the home plate.
"Are you blind, Jack, he was in by a mile!" Steve got right into Jack's face.
"Uh, Sloan, you forgetting which team you're playing for?" O'Neill reminded him.
Steve puffed up. "I'm always on Jesse's side."
"I'm sure you are," Jack agreed. "But he's still out."
Jesse, blushing, pressed up against Steve's side. "It's okay, Steve, I'm sure Jack knows what he's doing."
The fact that the TMs were still ahead by five points probably had a lot to do with Jesse being so understanding. The young doctor was definitely more of a lover than a fighter, but he usually showed more competitiveness than that.
In the end, the TMs didn't need to take advantage of having the final at bat. They won by a comfortable and, Jack was certain, a carefully calculated margin of two points. The Defenders might have been too obvious in the beginning of the game, but they'd learned their lesson.
"WhooHOO!" Van yelled, jumping on Tony in his excitement, garnering him glares from two different Defenders, his own and Gibbs. In the general glee the TMs were exhibiting, though, no one made an issue of it.
"You guys suck," Dean stated as he pointed at the Defenders, showing a distinct lack of sportsmanship. He'd hit a homerun in the seventh inning and run all of the bases backwards. It was a slow run, of course, so as to not put a blemish on his reputation as a bad ass.
"So I guess what you're saying is that you were on the right team after all," Jack verbally poked at him. "Right?"
"Let's not be hasty, O'Neill," Dean backtracked rapidly. "Just because I play baseball like a TM doesn't mean I am a TM."
"Uh-huh," Jack grunted. "Riiiiight."
"Come on, everybody," Charlie Eppes called out. He was in charge of the next group activity. "Find your partner; it's time for the three legged race."
"Sammy doesn't need a partner," Dean grinned at his brother.
"What?" Charlie stopped and looked at him in confusion. "It's a three-legged race. Two guys pair off and we tie one leg each together, so that there's a total of three but each team has to work together to be successful. I know you guys didn't get to do a lot of fun stuff when you were growing up, but don't you know what a three-legged race is?"
"Oh, he knows," Sam said darkly. "He thinks he's funny."
Charlie shook his head. "I don't get it."
"Sam doesn't need a third `leg,'" Dean elbowed Charlie. "He's got a leg-sized member in between his legs."
Dean snickered, as did some of the other men, Defenders and TMs alike. Sam and Charlie both blushed, although for different reasons. Jack watched in satisfaction as the group headed towards the grassy, level part of the park that had been designated for the race.
"Hey, O'Neill," Ellison called to him before Jack got too far. Jim jerked his chin towards the baseball diamond. "This doesn't happen again."
Behind him, Jack could several of the other Defenders nodding at him seriously. The TM vs Defender nature of the game had been distinctly unpopular with the Defenders.
"Come on, guys," Jack spread his hands out in supplication. "How could I say no to all of them?"
"Easy," Gibbs stated. "You say `no.' N. O."
"Yeah," Deaq agreed.
"I'm sorry Jack, but I agree with them," Mac Taylor chimed in.
"Okay, if it's that easy to say no to a group of TMs, then one of you guys can do it," Jack retorted. He pointed towards Ellison. "Since you brought it up, the next one's on you."
"Fine," Jim replied, jaw tightening. "I'll show you how it's done."
Jack kept a bland expression on his face as the other Defenders hurried to catch up to their TMs. Only when he thought he was alone did Jack allow himself a satisfied grin.
"Even for you, that was sneaky," a voice came from behind him.
Turning to face Daniel, Jack chuckled. "Hey, they started it."
"And you know full well that Van and Greg brought a whole box of fireworks," Daniel pointed out. He was trying hard not to grin. "And now Jim Ellison gets to be the one to tell everybody that it's a bad idea."
Jack rubbed his hands together. "I know!"
Daniel shook his head. "And I'm the Trouble Magnet in this relationship? I'm not sure how it worked out that way."
Thinking of all the messes that Daniel had gotten himself into over the years, it was crystal clear to Jack. Of course, he wasn't going to point that out to Danny. Wrapping his arm around his TM, Jack started them walking towards the race. "Come on, let's go watch the race and, afterwards, we can enjoy the fireworks."
And if Jack meant 'fireworks' in more ways than one, Daniel didn't call him on it.