Notes:Title from "Psalm" by Hey Rosetta! I'm sure this story has been done to death, but here's another one. Major spoilers for One Wrong Move and deals with a major character death.
The bomb exploded. It was raw and harsh and even though Greg would never admit it, he saw it coming. Lou died, and Greg saw it coming.
The explosion seemed to rush in through his ears and then down his spine, shaking him from the inside out. After, the silence rang almost as loudly, followed by a shrieking cry.
Greg went to Spike and gathered him up, aware of a creeping sense of being watched. It was too open, too exposed. He needed to get them away from the gawkers and the hangers-on who didn't understand what it was like to be part of a team that was also a family. In his arms, Spike's cry ground out into silence. It took Greg a moment to realize that he hadn't stopped, he'd simply cried so hard that he no longer had air for it and couldn't breathe in, like the baby who turned himself blue with the power of his crying. Greg clutched Spike closer.
"Breathe, buddy," he whispered. Out of the corner of his eye, Greg saw Sam walking away, almost out of the containment and into the road.
"Eddie," he said, a little louder for his earpiece. There was a strangled sound in his ear that might have been a "yeah." "Eddie, Sam."
Greg had just enough time to watch Ed run after Sam and pull him around before Spike made a move to try and turn around to the explosion site. He grabbed the shoulder of Spike's shirt with one fist, wrapped his other hand around Spike's head to keep it steady and sat back on his heels, using his greater weight to keep Spike in place. Spike didn't struggle, rather leaned up against him again and plucked at Greg's vest with nerveless fingers.
"Winnie," Greg said. There was a click as Winnie tuned her radio, then a wet, snuffling sound.
"Y-yes," Winnie said in Greg's ear, voice cracked and thin. What was left of Greg's heart dropped out of his chest. Most of the dispatchers didn't listen in, only kept one eye on the transcript and an ear out for their name—a necessity when you had two or three teams on the line— but not Winnie. Winnie always listened; she had heard. She was halfway across the city, but she was there with them. Greg suddenly became hyper-aware of the sounds Spike was making, halfway between a moan and a howl. He grabbed the earpiece out of Spike's ear and fumbled his radio off.
"Winnie, I need…uh…I need…" He couldn't figure it out, couldn't get his head around what he was asking.
"I have the combat engineers on their way to check out the building," Winnie interrupted him. "And the bomb disposal team for the—the land mines." Her voice broke, but she cleared her throat and plowed on. "And the coroner."
"That's…fine, Winnie, thanks," Greg said. She didn't reply and the click in his ear told him she had changed the settings on her radio. He looked up to check on the rest of his team. Sam had his hands braced against the hood of the car with Ed's hand on the back of his neck. Wordy and Jules were huddled together so closely they looked like one person.
"Boss." Wordy's voice was soft in his ear. "The media is having a field day. Sooner we get out of here, the better."
"Yeah. Are you good to drive? Why don't you take Jules and go. Eddie?"
"I've got Sam. You need help?" Greg looked down to where Spike clutched at his vest.
"We're good here. We'll be right behind you," he said. One of the SUV's pulled away, taking Wordy and Jules away. Greg knew that Ed wouldn't leave until he saw Spike safely in the car, no matter what Greg said to him. He bundled Spike up and Spike followed—he didn't have anything left to fight with.
The walk back to the car seemed to take both an eternity and no time at all. One moment, he was walking Spike back, then buckling him into the car, then turning to grip Ed in one hand and Sam in the other—and Sam was blank and stiff, staring through him— then following Ed with lights and sirens blaring.
Sometime on the drive over, Spike stopped crying, and when they pulled in, he was sitting still and quiet in the passenger seat. Greg had to lead him with a hand on his back, through the doors and there was Peter— covering for Winnie, thank god— looking pale and shaken as they swept past him.
"You've got 20 minutes before anyone else gets here," Peter said as they passed. Greg nodded his thanks.
Greg managed to get Spike to the gun cage and out of uniform in small steps— "Your gun, Spike," then "I need your vest Spike. Spike, your vest now." He turned Spike into the shower, noted that Wordy was still inside the next one over and hoped to god that Winnie and Jules were holding on to each other across the hall.
There was a crunching, banging sound and when Greg ran back to the locker room, Ed and Sam were in a huddle on the floor. Ed had Sam on the ground with his shoulders pushed back against the side of his locker. From the way the doors were bent and crumpled, it looked like Sam had tried to rip them apart with his fists. Ed was speaking with the low, calm voice of a negotiator and Sam was shaking his head like he had water in his ears and couldn't clear them.
Greg knelt next to Ed, tapping him on the shoulder to let him know he was there. Ed backed away.
"Sam?" Greg started. "Sam, you with me? You know where you are?" For a moment, Sam shook his head again and blinked blankly, then—
"The SRU," he said.
"Good," Greg said. "That's good, Sam. How does the floor feel?" Sam blinked again.
"Cold," he said at last. "Hard."
"Good, you're doing great. You ready to get up?" Sam nodded, quicker this time, and they pulled him up to sit on the bench, where he crumpled and put his head in his hands. Not great, Greg thought, but better than beating on the locker.
Greg turned to Ed, trying not to think about what he had to do next. Taking care of Spike and Sam had let him put it off, but it was time now.
"Ed, I have to go," he said. "Will you make sure everyone gets home safe?"
"Of course. But Greg, someone else—" Greg interrupted with a shake of his head.
"It's my job, Eddie. I owe them that much." Ed nodded his understanding and Greg turned and walked away, back to the car where he spent the longest drive of his life phrasing and rephrasing until he knocked on the door and didn't need to say anything.
Lou's father answered the door, caution sliding into stark understanding when he saw Greg standing on his doorstep, still in uniform. He held up a hand before Greg could speak.
"He called," Lou's father said. "Did you know?" Greg nodded. He hadn't heard, but he'd been glued to the binoculars, seen the call.
"I suppose he was doing something stupid and brave," his father said, voice cracking. Greg nodded again. He couldn't seem to speak in the face of Lou's father's grief.
"His mother is coming home. I need you to go now."
Greg turned on his heel and left, all the words he had wanted to say clawing at his chest and nose and eyes.
He drove home, walked into his silent, dark house and put his fist through the wall.
The next morning, Greg's team arrived in drips and drabs and halfheartedly hit the gym. Only Ed and Sam were breaking a sweat. Wordy had made it into the locker room, but not out and Jules kept stopping in the middle of whatever she was doing like someone had hit the pause button. Greg finally had to take the weights away from her and sit her down on the bench.
At 7:23, Spike walked into the station, stopped, then walked right back out again.
Greg hurried after him. He found Spike just outside the doors, doubled over with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath.
"Easy there, Spike," Greg said, rubbing a slow circle across Spike's shoulders. "Breathe out for me buddy, long and slow." Spike gulped, then let out a long, shaky exhale. His next breath was still fast, but more controlled and he let it out again instead of trying to breathe in twice.
"You sleep at all?" Greg asked, as if he didn't already know the answer. Spike shook his head. "Yeah, me neither." He flexed the hand he'd punched with, felt the scrapes and bruises pull against the gauze.
"I fought with a wall, you do anything that stupid?" Greg asked, trying to keep his voice light. Nod. "Want to tell me about it?" Shake. "Okay, Spike." He paused, trying to think of a better way to say what was coming next. Nothing occurred to him, so he decided to come right out and say it.
"We're cleaning out Lou's locker today, but you don't have to stay," he said. Spike jerked himself upright.
"I'm staying," Spike said, angry at the thought that he would leave.
"Good, we need you," Greg said. "Look, I need to find Wordy, but Jules needs someone nearby. Do you think you can help me out?" On a better day, Spike would have spotted the rather blatant manipulation, but this was the day after yesterday and he latched onto the job like a lifeline.
Greg followed him in and pointed him toward the gym, where Jules still sat on the bench, wiping at her eyes with shaky hands. Spike went and sat beside her and they did what Greg knew they would do: leaning up against each other and holding on.
He left them and headed for the locker room. From the sound of the showers going, Ed had called an end to gym time after Greg left to follow Spike. Greg was grateful. Ed knew how to keep things moving, knew that the only reason they were in the gym this morning was to wait until Spike got there.
He spotted Wordy immediately. It looked like Wordy hadn't moved since he had come in half an hour ago. He was standing in front of his locker, shirtless. His civilian shirt was in a puddle at his feet and he was staring at a black SRU t-shirt he had in his hands, frozen in the act of changing. Greg stood next to him, solemnly looking at the t-shirt as well.
"Wordy?" he prompted at last. Wordy shifted on his feet, the first move he'd made since Greg found him.
"I—" he stopped, cleared his throat. "I borrowed it. It's Lou's. I borrowed it last week."
"How do you know?" Greg asked. Wordy tilted it so Greg could see the proof. The tag was missing. Lou always tore the tags out of his shirts—said he couldn't stand looking through a rifle scope with a tag itching his neck. He'd been teased for it, but then last year Ed had finally bought him a seam ripper, so he could do a neater job.
"What do I do? What do I do with it?" Wordy asked. Greg gripped his shoulder, knowing it wasn't just a question about the shirt.
"Keep it," he said. "Keep it, wear it." Wordy seemed to brace himself, then nodded and pulled the shirt over his head.
"Boss?" Spike said from behind them. Greg turned. Spike and Jules were standing in the door way. Spike held an empty cardboard box in his hands and Jules had her arms around his waist with her head on his shoulder.
Suddenly, Ed and Sam were on his other side, looking damp but determined and it was time, even though Greg didn't think he was ready.
Spike set the box down on the bench beside Lou's locker and Greg opened the doors. For a moment, everyone stood in silence, taking in the pictures splashed across the inside, the neat piles of clothes on one side, toiletries on the other.
"He always was the neatest," Sam said quietly.
"Yeah, he could give my mother a run for her money," Spike added. A ripple of laughter ran through the group before they settled into silence.
There was nothing for it. Greg had to start. He put the shoes in first: a set of civilian sneakers and a pair of gym shoes, followed by the neat stacks of clothes. As he pulled the small basket of toiletries down, the seam ripper slid out and fell to the floor with a clatter. Ed stooped to get it and then stood, clutching it tightly in one fist. It didn't make it into the box; Greg saw Ed slip it into his pocket instead. And then it was just the pictures left, and the stray buttons in the back corners. It didn't seem like enough, Greg thought, there should be more.
"That's it?" Jules asked, unknowingly echoing his thoughts. She sounded close to tears again. No one answered her as Greg set the lid gently over the box.
Before he could pick it up, Spike grabbed it from him.
"Spike—" he began. It was his job, really, as their sergeant, but Spike shook his head and clutched the box tighter. "Alright. Want company?" Spike shook his head again. Greg couldn't bring himself to argue; Spike had been a regular fixture at the Young house, he deserved time alone with Lou's parents.
"I'm giving you an hour, Spike, then I expect to see you at my house," Ed cut in. "The rest of you, too. It's not optional." For a moment it looked like Jules was about to protest, but Ed had used his team leader voice and it allowed everyone to fall back on the habit of obedience.
They drifted apart after that, to gather themselves before meeting at Ed's house. Much as they might want to be alone, Greg knew that it was a good call that they shouldn't be. The gauze on his hand was testament to that. Greg used the time to field a call from Holleran and arrived just within the hour cutoff. He was the last one, following on Spike's heels. Others might have not taken Ed's hour grace period seriously, but Greg's team knew that if they were late, Ed would have called in Donna and Team Three would have responded with the intensity of any hot call.
Greg took a minute to survey his team, making sure they were settled before he passed on the news from Holleran. Jules had wedged herself into the corner of the couch, with her feet pushing up against Sam's thigh and one of his hands resting on her ankles. Sam still had the blank stare edging in, but he was slumped into the couch, more relaxed. Wordy was on Sam's other side, one hand clutching the hem of Lou's shirt and Ed was standing behind him, finishing up a call to order pizza.
Spike dropped into the recliner on the other side of the room and collapsed. He put his head in his hands and let his fingers cover his eyes and face. His breathing was even, but Greg knew that was artificial; no one breathed that evenly unless they were trying to. Greg perched himself on the arm of the recliner and rested a hand on Spike's shoulder.
"Holleran called," he announced to the room. "The funeral is tomorrow at 10."
Across the room, Ed snapped his phone shut viciously and began his own round of even breathing.
"New recruit selection starts the day after."
Spike let out a short, aborted sound and collapsed into himself further. Greg could feel him trembling under his hand. He pushed down on Spike's shoulder, trying to keep him grounded.
"Boss," Sam said. Greg hoped he never heard that again, because it spoke of desperation. Sam had gone from resting his hands on Jules' feet to gripping them.
"I know it's fast, but it's necessary. Only Ed and I need to be there. The rest of you have a few days leave while we weed out the obvious duds."
They settled into silence, no one trusting themselves to speak. The pizza came and remained untouched. Greg knew that hours passed, but he didn't bother counting the time. Sometime in the afternoon, Sophie and Clark came home. Sophie took one look at the crowd in her living room and sent Clark over to a friends, then brought water to everyone and bullied them until they drank it.
The sun was just beginning to set when Wordy finally spoke.
"He was right, you know," he said. "The tag is hell when you're about to shoot."
Greg went home after the funeral. He hadn't meant to, and Wordy had been talking about having the team over, but Greg hadn't been able to pull his eyes away from the large portrait of Lou and his ears had started to buzz, so he made his excuses and left. He had vague thoughts about sitting on the couch under a blanket and letting himself feel bad so he could get it over with before facing the new recruits the next day.
He sat on the couch and turned on the tv. The news must have been covering Lou's funeral, because they were showing a replay of footage from the college. Greg looked, and sure enough, there in the background was a little huddle of black in an empty square: Greg, with Spike in his arms.
Suddenly the buzz in his ears was a roar and his foot was kicking through the tv. It fell off its stand in a spray of broken glass, then it was the pile of cd's, the lamp, the pictures on the wall, all pulled off and thrown to the ground, cracking and splintering at his feet. There was a loud, harsh noise, which Greg realized was his own voice, yelling. He tripped over the coffee table and came up hard against the wall and he went after it again, punching and kicking and trying to tear it down, because that's what his life felt like right now.
His doorbell rang. Greg sat down on the floor with a bump, his ears ringing in the sudden silence. His hand throbbed. He would be lucky if he hadn't broken it.
The doorbell was followed by a series of short, commanding knocks. Greg levered himself up, wincing as he did, and opened the door.
Donna stood on his front step. He watched her take in his rapid breathing and his red, bleeding hand.
"Everything okay here, boss?" she asked. "Your neighbors called you in, said it sounded like—" She cut off abruptly as she looked past Greg's shoulder to the devastation of the room beyond. Her stance changed, became pointedly relaxed. "Mind if I come in?"
Greg shook his head and stepped back, suddenly too tired to argue. He dropped onto the couch, not bothering to clear off the debris first.
"You got a first aid kit?" Donna asked. He pointed toward the kitchen and he heard her rummaging before suddenly she was sitting on the coffee table in front of him, the kit open beside her. She took his hand gently and began dabbing at the cuts and scrapes. It stung, but he didn't pull away.
"Peter said the media was covering the funeral, but I guess you knew that already," she said with a glance at the trashed tv. "You know what I think?" Her voice was calm and even. Greg knew that she didn't mean him to answer.
"I think you owe Lou for Spike's life," she continued. "And when you owe for something that big, you pay it forward." She was manipulating his hand now, probing for broken bones. "Not just to other people, but to yourself and your team." Greg felt like she'd reached in a squeezed his heart. He had to take a moment just to breathe.
"Copy?" she asked, voice firm and unresisting. Greg appreciated that. He knew he wouldn't have been able to respond if he'd heard a hint of sympathy or pity in her voice.
"Copy," he acknowledged.
Outside, there was the muffled thump of a car door closing. Greg looked and saw Ed coming up the drive.
"You call Ed?" he asked. Donna frowned, puzzled.
"Not me," she said. She must have left the door ajar, because Ed didn't bother knocking.
"Looks like I drew the short straw," Ed said as he surveyed the damage. He pulled out his phone and fiddled with it. "Wordy said you weren't quite right after the funeral. He and Sam are checking the station. Spike and Jules have the route here from the church." He didn't say that Spike and Jules were checking all the bars, but Greg knew that was what he meant. That was the drawback to a team as close as family. They knew when you had a problem, even when you didn't want them knowing you were having a problem.
"Sorry, Eddie," Greg said quietly. Donna's words were still rippling through his chest and now with Ed here, he felt shame welling up to join them. Ed hurried to sit next to him and clapped a hand on his back.
"I'm just glad I'm the one that found you," he said. "How's he doing Donna?"
"He'll live," she said as she taped the last of the gauze to his hand.
Outside, they heard more car doors slamming. They must have been on their way, Greg realized. He lived close to the station, but not that close. The rest of the team arrived in a bunch, bottlenecking in the hall as they took in what Greg had done. Ed stood and clapped his hands for attention.
"Alright everyone," he said. "Spike, I want you on electronics. Make sure everything's working, salvage what you can. Jules and Sam, you're on cleanup and small repairs. Wordy and I will take the wall. Donna, you staying?"
"Then you're floating as needed and keeping the boss out of the way. Watch your step, people, there's glass everywhere."
Wordy took an assessing look at the holes in the wall and backed out of the room.
"I'm off to the hardware store," he said as he went. "Feed me on the fly, Eddie."
"Copy," Ed responded absently. He was already taking rough measurements with his hands.
And just like that, his team was set in motion. Donna took him to the kitchen and made him drink while she rummaged for snack food. Greg sat and sipped his water and thought about what Donna had said. He watched Spike checking over his electronics one by one and wondered if he would ever be able to pay forward a debt as important as Spike's life. He doubted it.
Ed came over to wait for Wordy and Donna left to help sweep.
"What did Donna say?" Ed asked.
"She said we owe Lou for Spike, and that for something that big we have to pay it forward." They both paused to watch Jules and Donna sweep glass into a pile from opposite ends of the hallway.
"You think she's wrong?" Ed prompted. Spike came back in from throwing away the broken tv and for a moment, his eyes fell on Greg.
"No, Eddie," Greg said. "No, I think she's right."
The new recruits were already there when Greg arrived the next day, bright eyed and buzzing with energy, and he tried very hard not to hate them for it. It was a relief to make it to the quiet of the locker room, away from all the hopeful faces.
Ed was already there. He was sitting on the bench in front of Lou's empty locker, with one hand resting in the middle of where the plaque would go.
"Is it here yet?" Ed asked, voice thick. Greg sighed.
"Not yet," he said quietly. "Later today, probably, or tomorrow morning." It took time to get the metal etched. Ed took a deep, slow breath and swallowed.
"No maybe's," he said. "Doesn't matter if they can negotiate the end of World War Two, if they can't shoot, they're gone."
"Copy," Greg agreed. Sometimes they would compromise on one skill for a stellar performance in the other, but this time they had to be strict. Whoever replaced Lou had to pass all around.
Ed clenched his jaw, nodded once at the locker and came to join him. When they walked out into the lobby, he was Team Leader, all trace of grief gone.
"Listen up!" Ed called loudly. "Black with me at the range, red with Sergeant Parker in the briefing room. We'll rotate you in and out of the range until everyone's done the psych test." There was a collective moan at the mention of the test. Ed bared his teeth in a grin that was more terrifying than comforting.
"Complainers get shot," he said. "Got it?" The titter of nervous laughter mixed with the sound of general assent and people began to move in one direction or the other.
Greg followed the crowd to the briefing room, set up the test and then sat, with nothing to keep him company but the sound of pencils scratching and his own thoughts. The psych test was supposed to take at least an hour, but there was always some hotshot who rushed it and sure enough, 20 minutes in Greg had a completed test in his hands. A halfhearted scoring revealed inconsistency everywhere and Greg took out his black pen and drew a harsh X through the candidate's name.
By the end of the day, he had a large pile of tests for candidates who wouldn't be asked back the next day and a smaller one for those who would. Cross-matching with Ed's list brought them down to a dozen. They were handing over the list to Winnie, so she could make the calls, when Holleran found them, a small flat box in his hands.
Ed took it and opened it carefully. A flat metal plaque slid out onto his hands and there was Lewis Young staring up at them, engraved in the metal. Ed clutched at it like he didn't think he would ever be able to let go. On the other side of the desk, Winnie was staring.
"I'll call them in," Greg said quietly. "Eddie?"
"Yeah," Ed replied vaguely and Greg knew that he hadn't really heard. He turned and walked back toward the locker room, almost running into the wall because he had his eyes on his hands rather than where he was going. Thank god the new recruits had gone home already, Greg thought.
Jules arrived first, with Sam at her heels, then Spike and Wordy a couple minutes later. Greg watched them check in with each other with small touches and long looks that didn't need any words. They looked worse than when he'd seen them last, waving them off from his front step yesterday, when keeping them busy had kept them together. It looked like the day off hadn't done them any favors.
It was a silent group that gathered around Ed in the locker room. Ed passed around the plaque and they all took a turn holding it, taking in the words and tracing their fingers over the lines of Lou's face. Spike was last in line. He held it for so long that Greg was about to prompt him before he reluctantly handed it back to Ed. Ed had the screws and drill ready. There was a clinking sound of metal on metal as he lined things up; Ed's hands were shaking. He took a deep breath to steady himself and before Greg could step in to help, he had the job done. He stepped back and Lou stared back at them. Greg looked at his team, at how they looked hollowed out, and couldn't stop the thought that he'd done this. They'd chosen each other, but he'd pushed them into a family and if he hadn't, this might be easier.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry. If I hadn't—"
"Shut up," Jules interrupted him. He'd never heard her sound like that, so low and dangerous. She was glaring up at him, fists clenched at her side. "Shut up! You think any of us could have stopped him? You think any of us wouldn't have done the exact same thing? That was Lou's choice—his last choice—to save Spike and all of us and keep the peace, so don't you dare—"
Her voice rose and she launched herself at him. He grabbed her as she pushed at him and pulled her closer. As soon as she was close, her anger turned to tears and he felt Jules start to shake as he held her. The others moved too, not to pull her away, but to push closer until they were in a little huddle with Greg and Jules in the center. Sam lowered his forehead to Jules' shoulder and Spike grabbed all three of them in a fierce hug, eyes wet. Wordy and Ed were on the outside, resting hands on shoulders or arms or backs.
"It's okay," he said to the group at large. "We're all okay."
They broke apart by degrees: Ed first to put away the tools, then Wordy and Spike together. Sam stepped away once Jules' breathing began to calm. Greg let her go when she pushed away from him and she looked down at the ground as she wiped her eyes, embarrassed.
"Sorry," she said quietly. He took her hand and squeezed.
"It's okay," he said again. "And you're right Jules. I would have gladly stepped off that land mine if it had meant any of your lives." He scanned the room, meeting each of his teammates eyes in turn. They all looked like their tiredness had settled into bone deep weariness, the kind that a good night's sleep couldn't fix.
"Please guys, please try to sleep," he said. They all nodded, but Greg knew that it was probably a futile effort. If their nights went anything like his, the only sleep they were getting was fitful and interrupted by the sound of bombs exploding and Spike screaming.
He made sure everyone left before him, because he wouldn't put it past any of them to just stay and keep busy, then went home and tried to follow his own advice.
It wasn't easy.
When Greg arrived at the station the next morning at 6, Sam was already there, running flat out on the treadmill. Winnie saw him coming and flagged him down.
"He's been on that thing for an hour," Winnie said.
Greg nodded his understanding and made a detour towards the gym. He had to stand right in front of the treadmill before Sam noticed him, and when he did, Sam startled, lost his pace and had to jump off before the treadmill took him down. Greg reached over to turn the machine off while Sam walked in little circles to cool down. He wanted to tell Sam to go home, but then thought better of it.
"Ed's running tactics and endurance drills today, if you want to help out," he said instead. Sam nodded and left. Greg sighed and hoped that was the last of his teammates he saw today.
Halfway through the morning, Greg looked up from an interview to see Jules hovering near the doorway, trying to listen in without listening in. He excused himself and went over to check on her.
"Hey," she said when he joined her. "I thought maybe we could run the Creeper today?"
"If you're sure," he said. She nodded and grabbed a pen and notepad from the front desk. The Creeper test was one of Ed's inventions, the first time they had to interview after Jules joined the team. All the new recruits had to do was refrain from leering at Jules while she pretended to be Greg's secretary. Sam wouldn't have passed, he thought as they both sat down at the table again.
This new recruit didn't either. As soon as he saw Jules, he looked her up and down and smiled that greasy sort of smile that made Greg want to punch his teeth in. Greg smiled politely back at him and told him he was free to join Ed for tactics.
"You know, Lou used to pass on the names of the guys who leered at me to Ed," Jules said as they waited for their next interview. He turned to her. It was news to him, but also not very surprising.
"Really?" he asked.
"Yep. Said they deserved whatever Ed could dish them." For a moment, her face opened and she laughed. It was so normal—Jules laughing at something Lou had done— that it jarred painfully with the last few days. Greg had to look away so he wouldn't see the moment where she stopped laughing and remembered.
Halfway through the last interview of the morning, Jules kicked him in the shins under the table and Greg looked up from his notes to see Spike slouching through the station. He had his head down and didn't look around when he heard Jules asking a question so Greg let him be—besides, this recruit had seen through Jules' street clothes and had just said they would rather give the subject space than crowd him when he had a gun to his head and Greg really wanted to hear the end of that discussion.
The interview went long—promising, really—and by the end of it, Greg felt the kinks in his knees and back from sitting still. He stood and stretched, walking to the window where he could look out across the training grounds. Ed was on his own, presiding over the recruits who sprawled on the grass and guzzled water like there was no tomorrow.
"Ed's alone," he said. Jules came over to look.
"Shouldn't he be?" she asked. Greg took one long look for Sam to be sure and then shook his head.
"No, Sam was with him this morning." Jules was quiet for a moment.
"I'll cover Ed," she said. Greg left her and went to find Sam and Spike, though he thought he probably knew where they were.
He found them in the locker room. Sam was sitting on the floor opposite Lou's locker with his knees up to his chest and his elbows on his knees, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Spike was lying on the bench, not moving. He took it in with a jolt of adrenaline.
Sam hushed him without looking up.
"Quiet! He's sleeping. I guess he's not doing much of that at home, but he's asleep now so, quiet," Sam ordered, then added "Please."
He came forward more cautiously, trying to breathe out the aftereffects of sudden fear. Sure enough, Spike was curled on the bench, his hands relaxed near his chest and his breathing deep and even. Sam had made a pillow out of his jacket to cushion his head. Sam was keeping watch, Greg realized.
He leaned his back up against the lockers and let himself slide down to join Sam on the floor.
"Well, that makes one of us," he said. Sam huffed a laugh and leaned his head back, eyes closed.
"Ed sent me away, said I was freaking out the rookies," he admitted. "The flash-bangs." Greg nodded. They all had their flashbacks, but Sam had more than most.
"I just—" Sam continued. "I just thought I was done with land mines, you know?" Greg couldn't think of anything to say to that, so they sat in silence for a couple moments.
"You want to lie down?" Greg asked at last. "I can keep watch." Sam pushed himself upright again and opened his eyes.
"No, I've got him."
"Alright. Let him sleep, but it would be good if he was awake before the rookies came in to clean up," Greg said as he levered himself from the floor.
"If they don't understand why, then they aren't right for the job," Sam replied.
He was right, but Greg didn't appreciate how right until a couple hours later when he and Ed called an end to the days drills. They met at the front desk to exchange notes and then stood there to read them, not bothering to go sit down somewhere more private.
Suddenly, Greg clued into a conversation happening behind them. It was one of those conversations that registered all at once as potential trouble—a skill honed on thousands of hot calls. He snuck a look at Ed and saw that he was staring at the same place on the page, listening.
"The guy was asleep on the bench," a male voice was saying. "I mean, who does that? Go home, dude."
"And that blond guy," another male voice cut in. "He totally wigged out on me in the shoot house. Nearly took my fucking head off. I thought these guys were supposed to be the best?"
"You do know why we're here, right?" a woman's voice asked. She sounded politely incredulous. Greg recognized the signs of imminent danger, but apparently the men she was talking with didn't.
"Yeah, their team mate blew up, but—Hey!" There was a sound like someone being shoved up against a wall.
"Then until you have been there, you don't say anything," the woman ground out. Greg caught a glimpse of her as she strode away: a dark skinned woman with close cropped hair and a steely determination in her eyes. The men left a moment later in a flurry of muttering.
"Winnie," he said urgently. Winnie was already rolling toward him, a note with three names clutched in her hand.
"Leah Kerns," he read out. He looked up at Ed. "Please tell me she passed tactics today."
"With flying colors."
They were down to four. When Greg's team gathered that morning, they were quiet and tense, the weight of the upcoming decision hovering over them like a cloud.
Wordy joined them with his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his shoulders hunched.
"You guys need to come over tonight," he said without preamble. "I told the girls about Lou, but they're young. They don't really get it. Ally asked me yesterday if Spike and Jules were in heaven too and Lilly is having nightmares she won't tell us about. So we're having a barbecue and you all are coming. Bring food, don't bring food, bring five different types of cake, I don't care. Just come." He walked away from them before anyone could answer and went to sit in the far corner of the briefing room, his head hanging like it was too heavy to hold up anymore.
A shocked silence rang through the rest of the team. Greg had always thought that Wordy—with his large family and strong ties— had the strongest support structure. If anyone could cope, Greg thought, it would be Wordy. He didn't realize that with his little girls, Wordy might have less time for his own grief. Clearly, Greg wasn't the only one who made that mistake.
"I'll call Sophie," Ed said quietly. "Ask her to call Shelley, see if she needs help." He walked away, cell phone in hand. Spike sat down and rolled his chair so he was next to Wordy, then nudged Wordy's ankle with his boot. Wordy looked up, smiled tiredly at him and nudged him back. That was alright then.
The first recruit of the day knocked brightly on the door. Greg introduced him to the team, then Sam took his cue without warning, grabbing Jules to the ground and pulling a fake gun. The recruit stuttered, then regrouped, and they were off, with the rest of the team watching the negotiation like hawks.
"Well," Wordy said when it was over and the recruit gone, "He got the gun down eventually." Jules shot him a disgruntled look from where she was brushing herself off.
"Yeah, but you didn't have to be on the floor while he did it," she said. Wordy looked like he was about to argue.
"So, a maybe," Ed cut in before it could escalate. He straightened up suddenly and Greg looked around to see why.
Leah Kerns was standing in the doorway. She greeted the team with a steady gaze and a firm handshake. Greg shared a look with Ed, then set the next crisis in motion with a nod.
It was Wordy's turn. He pulled the gun and grabbed Spike out of his chair. He looked so angry and so convincing that Greg saw Jules half rise to intervene. Leah didn't blink. She raised her hands and gestured for Jules to sit down again.
"Can you tell me why we're here, sir?" she asked. Wordy snarled at her.
"I come home and my wife has packed her bags. She's going to live with this scumbag," he yelled. He put the gun squarely on Spike's forehead. Spike leaned away on instinct.
"It's hard to be alone," Leah said. Greg paused in his note taking and looked up. She had taken Wordy by surprise. He blinked at her.
"What?" he asked. Leah shuffled half a step forward.
"It's even harder to go home and look at your wife and feel alone," she continued. "Or to walk down the street and see all those people and think that there was only one person for you, and now they're gone."
She had the entire team's attention now. Greg's pen lay forgotten on the table. If Leah noticed the sudden stillness in the room, she didn't let on.
"You might even think—Can I even find another person? Is it even possible?"
"Is it?" Wordy asked. The gun was loose in his hand, all but given up already.
"It is," she said, with such firm conviction that Greg believed her. Not only that, but Greg saw the moment when Spike believed her. He went from fake scared to deep thought and for the first time, Greg saw that Spike was thinking not only about Lou, but the possibility of life after Lou and what that might be.
"But you'll never have a chance to find that other person if you pull the trigger," Leah finished. Wordy looked at the gun in his hand like he had forgotten it was there, then put it on the table. He sat back down, but Spike stayed where Wordy left him, frozen in the act of frowning at the ground. There was a moment's pause as everyone realized the negotiation was over. Greg sat back and turned toward Leah.
"I'm going to be honest with you Leah, I heard what you said to those men yesterday in the hallway," he said. For the first time, Leah looked uncomfortable. She shifted on her feet and slid her eyes away from him.
"Oh," she said uneasily. "I'm sorry, that was unprofessional. I want you to know that I don't make a habit of picking fights on the job." The rest of his team was looking confused, but Ed was shooting them a look that said he would explain later, so Greg didn't bother to clue them in.
"I take it you've been there," he said. She stilled and looked at him. It was an assessing look that Greg knew well and used himself. How much should I say? it said. How much will you understand?
"Yes, I have," she admitted.
He thanked her and she shook hands around the table again and left. Spike didn't shake; he was still standing, staring at his feet. Greg waited until Leah was gone before he intervened.
"Spike?" he called. Spike started, then sat down in a rush that seemed more like a controlled fall. He looked up, meeting Greg's eyes across the table.
"Yeah, okay," he said. Greg nodded, relieved.
"Okay," he agreed.
Greg should have just hired her on the spot, he thought later. Not that the other two were bad. In fact, Greg knew that under normal circumstances they were excellent. But this wasn't a normal circumstance, and Greg knew that it wouldn't be for a while yet.
"You can take some time to think," Greg told his team as they started clean up at the end of the day. "But let me know by the end of the day."
"Barbecue's at six," Wordy added. "Come over whenever."
The others left, but Ed stayed.
"There's nothing to think about, it has to be Leah," he said. Greg nodded.
"I know," he agreed. "But they have to come to their own conclusions. This one can't be top down, Eddie, they have to choose." He scrawled a couple last minute notes and looked up, expecting to see Ed gone. Instead, Ed sat, staring at where his hands lay clenched in his lap. Greg knew the look of someone trying to keep it together. He stood up and pretended not to notice, capping his pens and shuffling his notebook around.
"Boss, I miss him," Ed said. It was low and quiet, but it cut through Greg. He collapsed back into his chair and scrubbed his hands over his face.
"Me too, Eddie, me too."
Wordy's youngest two met them at a run. Greg swung Lilly into his arms as Ally ran past him to launch herself at Ed. Ed caught her easily, then turned her upside down as she laughed.
"Who left this sack of potatoes lying around?" he asked loudly as he stomped up the porch and into the house. Greg was about to follow him, but Lilly tugged on his shirt to get his attention.
"Will you sit with me?" she asked, pointing to the rocking chair to the side of the door. She regarded him with solemn eyes and popped her thumb into her mouth. Since Wordy had been crowing about finally breaking her of this habit not two weeks ago, Greg realized this was serious. Well, he thought, he listened to far worse people on a daily basis. Listening to Lilly would be a nice change.
"Of course, sweetheart," he said. He stuck his head in the door to let Wordy know he was here. The rest of the team had beat them there. Wordy's eldest was curled up against Jules' side as they read a book together. Spike and Sam were following orders from Shelley and Sophie, armed to the teeth with silverware. Greg caught Wordy's eye and half nodded to Lilly in his arms, then stepped out again and settled himself into the rocking chair with Lilly on his lap. Lilly sat up so she could see his face and took her thumb out of her mouth.
"Mr. Lewis died," she said. Greg nodded.
"I know," he said.
"Daddy said he exploded and that there wasn't anything he could do," Lilly went on. Greg wondered if Wordy had actually said this to his daughters or if Lilly had overheard him talking to Shelley. He rocked them a little as he considered his answer.
"That's true," he said at last. "We tried really hard to help, but sometimes there's nothing we can do." Lilly nodded as she thought about this, thumb in her mouth again. She gave in to the rocking and leaned against Greg's chest, head on his shoulder.
"Were you scared?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered. "Some of the most scared I've ever been." He felt sticky fingers on his neck as Lilly hitched herself up to put her mouth to his ear.
"I'm scared too," she whispered. Greg held her more closely against his chest. He was wrong, he realized. This was nothing like talking down a guy with a gun. This was far, far worse.
"How do you stop being scared?" she asked.
"Well," he said, "First I take a big, deep breath, like this." He inhaled slowly, held it for a count and released. Under his hands, he felt Lilly following along.
"Good, just like that. Then I tell myself what I'm scared of." He paused for a moment to consider his wording. "I'm scared that I won't be able to protect my team."
He tapped Lilly on the shoulder. "Your turn."
"I'm scared that Daddy won't be able to help again and that he'll explode next," she said. Ouch. Greg winced. They were scared of the same thing, but Greg sometimes forgot how blunt children could be.
"Okay, now I tell myself something that would help if what I'm afraid of happens. Like… If I can't protect my team, then I can ask Ed for help, or Spike or Sam or Jules or your dad. Because that's why we are a team, so that no one has to have all the answers."
Lilly pushed herself off his chest so she was sitting upright, her face screwed up in thought.
"If Daddy explodes, then Mommy will still be here to take care of me, and my sisters," she said. Greg nodded.
"And me, and the rest of the team too. Did that help?"
"Yes," she said. "Thanks Mr. Greg."
"No problem, honey." And with that, Lilly swung herself off his lap and ran into the house to throw herself at Jules.
When Greg followed her, Ally was begging Spike to play hide and seek. Spike playing hide and seek was legendary at the SRU. Wordy still told the story of the time when Spike squirreled himself away in the crawlspace and had the girls running him supplies while Wordy fruitlessly searched the attic. Now though, Spike had that twisted look that told Greg he really wanted to say no but couldn't figure out how.
Greg sat down next to him.
"I'll play," he offered Ally instead. Ally looked him up and down in a long, appraising look.
"But I don't think you'll fit in the crawlspace," she said.
There was a moment's complete silence. Then Spike started laughing. He laughed so hard tears ran down his face and he couldn't breath. It was the helpless, genuine laughter that was contagious. He heard Wordy start chuckling and felt himself grin in response.
"Remember—" Spike gasped. "Remember when the boss was down in that tunnel?" Jules was laughing now.
"But he got stuck and Lou had to pull him out," she continued.
"And then—and then Lou pulled his shoes right off!" Spike said.
"And Lou entered them into evidence and the boss had to go around in socks," Ed jumped in.
"No way," Sam said in between laughter. "This did not happen." Ed pointed at Greg.
"It did," he said. "And it was after that storm, remember? Mud everywhere. The janitor was very unhappy. He left a very angry note that Ed still has somewhere. Wordy took pictures."
Wordy was already flipping through pictures on his phone. Greg groaned as he tossed the phone to Sam, who took one look at it and dissolved in laughter. Greg knew the picture well. Ed still liked to slip it into unexpected places, like his reports and Greg's notebooks. In the picture, Greg looked like a pissed off, bedraggled duckling, covered head to toe in mud and streaming water that collected in a puddle at his sock covered feet. Over one shoulder, Lou was beaming and holding up the evidence bag with Greg's boots like a trophy.
"He told that story for years," Spike added through the laughter. "He was still telling it on our vacation."
The uspoken comment—that Lou had told that story just last week—didn't escape Greg. He watched carefully to see if it would bring the sadness and anger and unfairness of it all crashing back down on his team, but it didn't. Their laughter turned to chuckles, then quiet grins. There wasn't a moment like Jules had ealier, where the memory of the bomb tarnished the memory of Lou. Sam handed Wordy's phone back with a grin.
Shelley appeared in the kitchen door.
"The sooner someone mans the grill, the sooner we all eat," she said. There was a general stampede as people stood to help. Wordy and Ed grabbed spatulas and a heaping platter of meat while Spike corralled the girls into the bathroom to wash hands before dinner. Jules put a hand on Greg's elbow as he started to rise.
"It's Leah," she said. Behind her, Sam nodded his agreement.
"Ed agrees," Greg said.
"And the others?" Sam asked. For a moment, his eyes flicked to the bathroom, where Spike was lifting Lilly so she could reach the sink.
"Not yet," Greg said, "They still have time."
Wordy found him later, after everyone had eaten and settled into a post- food slump. Ed and Sam were halfheartedly clearing plates. Spike and Jules were on the couch with Ally and Lilly. Ally was slouched against Spike's left side, her eyes drooping. Lilly had passed out entirely, her feet on Spike's knee and her head cradled on Jules' lap. Jules was rubbing abesent circles on her back and staring at nothing. Wordy and Greg stood together for a moment and watched.
"Wordy, about your girls," Greg started.
"They're better already," Wordy interrupted. "I don't know what you and Lilly talked about, but she hasn't slept like that since we told them. So, thank you."
"If you need anything," Greg said seriously. "Anything at all, you call us." Wordy already knew that, but sometimes it helped to say it out loud. Wordy nodded.
"They've known you guys for their whole lives. And Lou—" His voice broke. He wiped a hand over his eyes and across his nose, then cleared his throat. "They're going to forget him."
Greg didn't say anything. They probably would, he knew. Lilly was young enough that she certainly would. Or if she did remember, Lou would be a fuzzy smear in her mind, reduced to a feeling, more than an actual memory.
Wordy cleared his throat again and took a deep, steadying breath. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger.
"The team needs someone who understands," he said. "And what Leah said today…she gets it."
"Alright," Greg said, nodding. He clapped Wordy on the shoulder in acknowledgment and thanks, but Wordy's eyes were fixed on the little group on the couch.
"You need to talk to Spike?" he asked. It came out like a question, but Greg knew that was politeness on Wordy's part. Wordy knew Spike was the last.
"Yeah, thanks Wordy," he said. Wordy nodded and moved forward, gathering Ally in his arms. He whispered something to Jules, who nodded and rose, carrying a limp Lilly. Spike rose too, but didn't follow them. Instead, he wandered out the front door and settled on the porch steps. He looked down at his hands, then up at the stars. Greg followed quietly, closing the front door behind him. They sat for a moment in silence.
"What does the rest of the team say?" Spike asked at last.
"I want to know what you say," Greg answered. He knew that Spike was looking for the easy way out. He would go with the group majority, but Greg couldn't let him do that. Whoever they chose, Spike would need to work with. He couldn't let the others choose for him.
"I say," Spike said slowly. "I say that Leah Kerns is not a replacement."
"Never," Greg said. He grabbed Spike by the shoulders, turning him face to face. "Never, Spike." He tightened his grip, trying to put into it all the words he could never find a way to say. Spike shook a little, and Greg couldn't tell if it was Spike shivering or his own hands shaking.
"Alright then," Spike said. He sounded pained, but determined. "We know she can't replace Lou. Let's find out what she can do." Greg smiled at him, squeezed once more and let him go. Spike relaxed again, putting his elbows on his knees and looking back up at the stars. Then he whispered, so quiet that Greg almost couldn't make it out.
"Keep the peace."
On the first day of Leah Kerns' new job, Greg was one man short. He found Spike in the locker room, standing in front of Lou's old locker. Greg paused. He'd had his own time in front of that locker earlier this morning.
"Spike," Greg said softly. "Ready?" Spike nodded and Greg saw him steel himself and turn away.