Empty Seat
By: Arainia

If there was one thing Michael Anthony Scarlatti (referred to as "Spike" by those who tripled as his co-workers, his closest friends, and another family of sorts) was not, it was antisocial; at least, not usually, and certainly before today, at this moment, never on purpose. Hell, eight days ago he'd been the absolute life of the party. Cracking jokes, fine-tuning his multipurpose robot, Babycakes, the guy who was never in one place for too long. The guy whose sole mission in life (other than protecting citizens) was to see smiles grace the faces of other people.

But eight days ago, he'd been a different man. Eight days ago, Spike Scarlatti's best friend had still been alive and kicking, right by his side, whatever he decided to do. Now Spike sat in the briefing room, eyes drawn, face haggard, tapping his leaden fingers against the table in an uneven, stuttering drum role. The entirety of Team One was stuffed into the briefing room, Spike could see from the looks on his comrades' faces that they weren't ready to return to the battlefield that was their city. Lou's memory still weighed on everyone's mind, his name burned against the tips of their tongues, unspoken, begging to be said.

The fact that each team member had been granted more than a full week of personal time off following Lou's death had been a generous gift from their superiors. Teams two and three shouldered the burden of protecting the city all by themselves during that time. Albeit the members of Team One were dressed in uniform and had returned promptly for work, Spike wondered if they were really prepared to face the world again.

Spike's eyes did a quick survey of the briefing room. It had once been a room full of life and candid banter, of booming laughter and true affection. It had also been the place where case reviews happened and the team shared anxieties and heartbreak over the turnouts of unsuccessful missions. In short, it had once been a family room.

Now that Lou was gone, the room lacked that ambiance. The air was too heavy, the lights at once too dull and too bright for a person to properly focus. As usual, everyone was looking up at the team sergeant, Greg Parker, but their eyes were empty, their movements listless. If Spike was an outsider looking in, he might say that the entire team was boring and lifeless, one of those units that could be shown up by a piece of cardboard.

As Greg spoke about the day that Team One had to look forward to (a most likely mundane one of patrol, maybe they'd get a warrant later in the day if they were lucky), something stirred in Spike's gut. He tried to ignore it, put it out of his head and concentrate on Greg's words, but the feeling was persistent. It gnawed at some place deep inside, near his heart, and suddenly, his head was up and he was staring right at the spot where Lou used to sit.

It was occupied, of course. The government stated that a certain number of members had to be accounted for on each team, so even though Lou had just died, they had to find someone with superb skills to take his place.

And she didn't belong there at all.

First off, she was a girl. Now, Spike had never been one to discriminate based on gender, but eight days ago there had only been two females registered with the SRU: Jules Callaghan, the very woman sitting across from him now, and Donna Sabine, whom he had worked with for a short period of time the year before. She was now on Team Three.

This new girl… what qualifications did she have? She could never be as good as Lou was and yet, she was sitting in his seat, intense, watching them all with poorly-concealed determination. The look in her dark eyes broadcasted the silent missile loud and clear: Lou is gone. I'm here to stay.

She had greeted Spike when he walked into the briefing room that morning, in response he kept on walking without so much as a nod of recognition. She didn't deserve to be welcomed onto the team with open arms… she was there to fill Lou's space. A task that was altogether impossible, and would forever remain that way in the eyes of Spike, and everyone else on the team.

He saw in their expressions the smorgasbord of emotions that were playing out on his own face: resentment, anger, weariness, denial.

"Leah Kerns. First day. Welcome." Greg gestured to the newcomer in Lou's old chair and she smiled graciously. Her quiet happiness didn't gel with the overtones of sorrow in the room, Spike felt his fists clench under the table. "We're gonna take it slow today… and uh, I'm sure you remember everyone from the recruiting trials." At this, everyone nodded curtly to her, to show that yes, they knew she was there and they were sure she was a good cop, but no, they were by no means pleased by that fact. Her smile never wavered, her eyes stuck resolutely to Greg's face.

"… So I won't, uh, embarrass you with any speeches." Greg looked relieved not to have to officially state that she was the newest member of their team. His body was only half-sitting in his seat at the head of the table before Leah spoke. Her voice was deep and slightly nasally, some might remark that it was like some sort of musical instrument: sharp, steady, clear. Spike personally compared it to a hornet buzzing around his head: annoying, detested, nerve-wracking.

"Can I say something?" She inquired politely. Greg raised his head to look at her, a ghost of a mere half-smile on his lips, failing to reach his eyes. The others shifted to look at her. Spike felt their collective surprise.

Nobody who wasn't part of the family should speak after Greg… or Boss as they called him… had already said what needed to be said. Just by looking at Leah's keen face, Spike understood that the next words out of her mouth would be pivotal, either gaining her minimal respect or deeper dislike amongst her new co-workers. He was willing to bet on the latter.

That same feeling, unidentified, churned near his heart once more. At that instant, Spike Scarlatti received an epiphany:

Six of the seven people positioned around that long table considered themselves family. He'd known this before, but up until this very second, he hadn't realized just how true it was.

The way that Greg presided over the head of the table; he was the sergeant of the team, the head negotiator, always believing that violence was a last resort. But he was more than just a sergeant; somehow, over the years, "Boss" had become synonymous with "Dad". Maybe it was because Greg had lost the chance to parent his own son, but he always steered the members of Team One through their nerve-wracking days with infinite patience and gentle guidance. And when they made a mistake, he was there to let them know that while he was disappointed in them, human beings were flawed creatures, and he would still support them unconditionally the next time they needed him.

Parker was a father figure to five others who desperately depended on him for reassurance and nurturance. Greg did not look upon Leah with that same concerned stare he had for the rest of his family, instead he saw her through a father's eyes: the new girl moving in down the street who wanted to integrate herself into his children's lives. She looked professional and sturdy, but what if she was a bad influence on the team? What if she didn't fit their dynamic and posed as more of a hindrance than a help?

To the right of the silently fretting Parker, Ed Lane stood in the corner. He was tall and bald, his eagle-eyed stares could pierce anyone, chill them straight to the bone. He was the team leader, and as such, had taken on the responsibility of the eldest son, which meant that along with Greg, he acted as a willing mentor for four others in the room. He was always there to make sure that they were doing their jobs and on their feet, physically and emotionally stable. But unlike Greg, he was not above smacking someone upside the head if they did something exceptionally stupid (take, for example, the time Spike was messing around with Babycakes, having the robot lift a full pitcher of Kool-aid off the ground. The pitcher slipped and shattered all over the ground, leaving a mess of grape liquid and glass to clean up). Ed could protect or tease, be a friend or a superior in the blink of an eye, just like a real older brother.

On Greg's left sat Julianna "Jules" Callaghan and Kevin "Wordy" Wordsworth. Wordy was a straight man and one of the toughest CQB fighters Spike had ever seen (granted, he'd not witnessed a lot). His role of the group was Mother. He had a wife and three little girls of his own, so he knew exactly how to tend to the physically injured and emotionally distraught. Wordy possessed a quiet strength that the others drew from and gravitated towards when they were down; he was almost like a human pillow. Soft, enforcing, empathetic. He could bring a smile to anyone's face with his good-natured humour, but he knew when to buckle down and be serious. If he felt that one of his "children" had done something wrong, he didn't even have to say anything. One look from his disappointed brown eyes and a person would know that what they'd done was wrong, and they should go to their room to think about it.

Wordy was acting as a pillar of sorts now for Jules, the slight brunette next to him. She had leaned against him- no, she had collapsed against him- the day that Lou died. She'd needed him, the maternal, familiar feel of his arms holding her up during her darkest hour.

Jules was by no means a wishy-washy weeping willow. She was a whole five feet two inches of strength and sauciness and quick wit. Growing up without her mother (she'd died when Jules was a child); Jules had learned from the get-go that being prissy and dainty was not the way to make it in the world. She was an invaluable member to the team, and the one that they worried over the most, even if it wasn't said. She was the smallest member of the team, but her sniping skills were just as good, if not better than the boys'. Still, for all of her rough-around-the-edges sarcasm and her masculine perspectives, she was a caring woman at heart. Spike remembered one night close to Christmas last year, he'd been rip-roaring drunk and Jules had taken him home, made up a bed for him on the sofa, and acted as a nurse for the rest of the night, making sure he didn't choke on his own vomit or something disgusting like that. Spike also thought Sam might have been there too, though he wasn't sure why… he passed it off as drunken delusions. Jules was the little sister of the group, an equal to her family, who would take care of them when called upon, just as they would undoubtedly do for her.

Across from Jules, all by his lonesome sat Sam Braddock. Once upon a time, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ex-army brat had been the team's "rookie", and he'd gotten off to a rough start with most everyone, approaching them with a cocky sense of confidence that the rest of the team felt was undeserved. But as more of Sam's past became known, the others realized that his bravado was just a façade to hide emotional turmoil and deep-rooted self-loathing. Gradually, the team had accepted him as one of their own. First he was an outsider, then he became the troubled foster child, but now he'd earned his place on Team One. Besides, he had a damn good shot, and had shown tremendous amounts of bravery every time it was required.

One would suppose that since Sam had forged a spot with Team One, that one day, Leah might as well. But the circumstances of Sam joining the team had been wholly different to Leah's: he'd replaced Rolie Cray, an officer who'd left the team of his own accord to accept a promotion. Besides, as far as Spike was concerned, his family had no room for newcomers. Its rolls had been fulfilled already; cheap substitutes would be no good in comparison with the real thing.

Lou's face in his mind, erupting like a sunburst, reminded Spike of where he and his former best friend belonged. They were fraternal twins, having gone through police academy together, they had already established a fantastic rapport by the time they entered Team One. Spike was the more extroverted of the two: goofy and loud, charming in that nerdy sort of way. Lou was his antithesis, quiet and contemplative, with a sharp sense of humour that was filled with subtle sarcasm He was the type of guy who would agonize over calling a woman for three days before he finally did, while Spike tended to disregard shyness as a setback altogether. Somehow, in spite of their differences, they were inseparable. Two goofballs who often functioned in the background (Spike as the tech geek, Lou was mostly stuck with "less lethal"). It was highly unusual to see one without the other, in fact, now that Lou was gone, Spike felt as though life had robbed him of a conjoined twin.

Looking at Leah now, watching as her mouth formed her next words, Spike almost felt pity for her. She'd never fit in and that was the truth. He was sure she was a perfectly interesting person (he might have even hit on her if the situation were different), but as it was, she acted as the enemy. The replacement that was only there out of necessity rather than invitation.

Spike's epiphany happened all in the few seconds before Leah added her two cents worth, and when it was out, he cringed. She had no idea how they were suffering, and though her voice held a tone of resigned tact, the others viewed it as a direct assault to their fresh wounds.

"Thank you for choosing me," she started, hopping up from her chair. "I know why I'm here. You're down a guy and I'm replacing him." She didn't note the reactions sweeping over the table like an epidemic: Ed squinted, a loaded appraisal within his eagle eyes, Greg bowed his head, Jules growled out a cuss word. Wordy frowned, aiming a 'Please Shut the Fuck Up And Stop Traumatizing My Kids, Lady' stare at her. Sam glowered at the tabletop as if he hoped he could burn a hole into its surface. Spike felt tears welling up in his eyes, though he blinked the wetness away to the best of his ability, seeing beyond Leah, seeing through her, to the seat that had once belonged to Lou. It was mourning its previous occupant, he was sure. Leah didn't seem to be comfortable in it.

"Don't hate me for it." Leah went on.

Too late. Spike thought, catching Ed's Eye of Doom, he knew the older man felt the same.

"In the firefighting unit I served with we lost one of ours so… I know what that's like." If he was in a better mood, Spike might have applauded Leah for pressing on, even when it was clear that everybody else desired silence from her. "If you wanna talk about it-"

Jules could no longer bear the opposing female's oration. "We're good." She said, her disdain plainly heard. Like a knife, Spike observed, cutting, precise, to the point with no fluff. He shot her a grateful look and she returned it with one of those understanding half-smiles she'd been giving him since Lou's death. Jules's words acted as a sort of taser. Stunned, Leah sat back into her seat, uncertain, hurt by rejection.

But before Greg could play the part of mediator, Winnie's voice sounded out: "Team One, suit up. Suit up, shots fired."

Ed banged his fist on the table, but it was mockingly weak. A gesture that was meant to be hearty and definitive- something an older brother would do to cheer his siblings on. "Let's go." He ordered. The noisy alarms blared and the rest of the team rose up with him, all of them trading stares. Spike thought he heard Jules mutter "A time and a place," to Parker, but he wasn't sure.

As he left the briefing room, Spike spared one last look at Lou's old seat. It was looking at him with its own unreadable, leathery stare and before he could discern exactly what the inanimate object was saying, therefore proving he was crazy, he looked away.


Hours later, the worn down team found themselves back in the briefing room after a long, trying day. Dealing with a disillusioned father who was desperate to cling to the belief that his daughter was still alive wasn't exactly an ideal day. But it was all a routine part of their job, something they should have been used to seeing.

For some reason, it had shaken them all to the core, though they had faced much more draining scenarios in their careers. They each plunked into a seat with a world-weary sort of relief. Spike sat up in his chair, fighting the urge to let it swallow him.

Jules was shaking slightly, tears stoic in those pretty doe eyes of hers. She'd been delegated the task of negotiator this time, and her words to the hostage taker were more personal than she'd probably intended.

The sun was sinking in the sky. Spike rubbed at his eyes.

"Spikey, good job today," Greg congratulated him. Spike smiled in thanks. He felt lighter, somehow, but seeing Lou's empty seat made his grin fade.

Where was Leah anyway?

As if she'd heard his thought, the newest SRU member walked through the door holding a big black box. She set it down on the table, sighing and opening it up to reveal a row of gold engraved wristbands. "It's not much, but it helps. Carry your friends with you." The text on the wristbands boldly proclaimed: "L. Young Badge 1902".

Leah seemed to shrink as six pairs of eyes turned to stare at her, though she stood tall when she realized that they were staring at her in awe, gratitude. Nobody said a word.

Spike was the first one to reach for an accessory, sliding it over his wrist. Next was Wordy, then Greg, then Ed, then Sam, then Jules (was it Spike's imagination, or did Jules's eyes light up when her hand brushed Sam's?). Leah smiled and sat down, thankful, no doubt, that her latest gesture of peace was well-received.

Spike tore his eyes away from the wristband adorning his arm. He was an emotional wreck; he'd started the day off hating Leah, now he was thinking she might not be the miserable wretch he'd pinned her for. He attempted to smile at her, his smile wobbling like a one-legged pigeon hopping around. It slipped off his face just as swiftly though, because, despite Leah's kindness, he was still seeing through her. She was transparent. But maybe not as transparent as she'd been that morning.

Maybe she could earn her place in time, Spike thought, but for now Lou's spot was nothing more than an empty seat.

This didn't exactly turn out as good as I'd hoped it would. It could probably stand to be much shorter, and I'm sure there are parts that should be edited out altogether, but as this is the first thing I've written in almost a month (if I'd waited three more days to write it, it would have been a month) I don't think it's half-bad? Please review and tell me what you honestly thought, and hey, I'd love to hear your opinions on Leah, too. I didn't like her at first but... we'll see.