DISCLAIMER: I OWN NOTHING!

Author's Note: This fic was inspired by the Season 6 premiere so there is a major spoiler. Hope you enjoy; please read and review!

"...You wanna room with these guys? You wanna be one of 'em? Well, guess what? From now on, you are permanently one of the guys..." Chief Feinburg's words echoed in Needles' head as the rest of the crew trooped out of the bunkroom.

Needles sank numbly onto one of the cots (he wasn't sure whose, and at the moment, he didn't care).

Even though Needles had allowed a lot of questionable things to go on in the house, he had (however stupidly) never believed things would go this far. Demoted. This was without a doubt the worst kick-in-the-guts feeling he'd had since Chief Reilly had committed suicide two years ago. Not only was he going to take a considerable pay cut, his actions (or lack thereof) had put the house itself in jeopardy. And worst of all, Needles had done something he had sworn he would never do way back when he was in probie school: He had abandoned a brother.

Sure, Tommy was a renegade and a colossal pain in the ass, but firefighters had a duty to protect their own, regardless of circumstances or petty personal bullshit. Teamwork was essential to survival. If you proved to be a coward or someone the crew couldn't depend on, you immediately became a lower form of life than even a probie. Needles had failed Tommy. He'd practically pissed himself when Uncle Teddy put the gun in his face and he didn't even try to talk Teddy down. The need for self-preservation had taken precedence over the team's safety, something that should never happen to a firefighter. Hell, Needles couldn't believe Tommy was still speaking to him. Needles himself sure as hell wouldn't be that understanding.

Needles let out a frustrated sigh and ran a hand through his hair, causing it to stick up even more than it usually did.

"Shit," he muttered. "I really fucked things up this time."

He walked down the hall to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, staring at his reflection. In a few days or weeks (depending on how long it took for Headquarters to process the paperwork), he would no longer be wearing this crisp white uniform shirt with the gold chief's insignia pinned to the collar and epaulets. He'd be in plain navy blue, a color he hadn't worn on the job for about fifteen years. Instead of standing at the rig barking orders into the radio, he'd be dragging his ass up flights of stairs in a Scott pack, carrying a halligan. It wasn't that Needles didn't miss the action; he'd just been a good thirty pounds lighter the last time he'd gone into a fire scene, which was 9/11. He shuddered at the memory of that terrible day, a day that was really the sole reason for his sudden promotion to chief.

"Pull yourself together," Needles told his reflection. "Sure, you're a little older, but you still got the balls to go in there and get it done. You're still in prime condition."

Needles was lying to himself and he knew it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually exercised (having sex with his mail-order bride Snezyana probably didn't count). He was never big on eating healthy, but his youthful metabolism had compensated quite a bit. Those days were definitely behind him. Needles sighed as he looked down at the slight gut protruding over his belt. If he was gonna get back in the ring, he'd have to cut some weight first.

Needles left the bathroom and went downstairs to the kitchen, where the guys were all lounging around the table. Something was boiling in a pot on the stove.

"Go outside and get the grill started," Lou was telling Damien. "And don't set the goddamn house on fire." He looked over his shoulder and grinned. "Hey, Needles. Just brushin' up on the ol' barbecue skills before our Save 62 Truck Cookout. Tonight, I'm makin' my famous babyback ribs, smothered in my equally famous secret-recipe barbecue sauce and spice rub."

Needles's mouth watered at the thought. Lou was a certifiable grill master. Still, if he was gonna slim down so he'd be ready to fight fires again, there was no way he could eat barbecued anything.

"That, uh, sounds great, Lou," he said.

Lou began removing ears of corn from the pot and setting them on a plate. He smeared each with a generous amount of butter, then held the plate toward Needles.

"Sweet corn?" he offered.

"Maybe later," Needles replied, ignoring his stomach's protests and hoping Lou couldn't hear them.

Without another word, Needles trooped downstairs to the area where the house's exercise equipment was set up. He stripped off his uniform shirt and draped it over the rack of free weights before stepping onto the treadmill. Needles started off by walking for a few minutes, next moved to jogging, and finally switched to running. It took what seemed like only thirty seconds of this for him to run out of breath; his heart was thumping painfully fast. Needles decided to try lifting next. He'd always been fairly good at that; he remembered benching 200 pounds in the academy.

Needles lay back on the bench and grasped the bar with both hands. The thing seemed to weigh a ton. Needles slowly lowered the weight to his chest. He rested briefly, then tried to lift it back up. To his horror, his arm suddenly cramped up. Needles cried out in pain; it felt like the barbell was crushing his chest. He couldn't breathe, much less call for help. Though Needles was a very lapsed Catholic, he still muttered a prayer of thanks to the Virgin Mary when he heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

"Jesus!" cried Franco, hurrying over to the weight bench.

He grabbed the bar and easily lifted the weights off of Needles. Needles slowly sat up, taking deep breaths.

"Are you all right?" asked Franco, his hand on his supervisor's shoulder.

"Yeah, Frankie, I'm fine," Needles said, forcing his usual easy grin into place.

"I didn't know you were into workin' out," said Franco.

"Well, ya get into it when your wife starts callin' ya Pig Man." That wasn't a complete lie; Snezyana had lately taken to giggling and poking him in the stomach like he was the goddamn Pillsbury Dough Boy.

"Pig Man?" Franco repeated. "Ouch. But I thought your wife only spoke Russian."

"So did I."

"Chief, if ya ever need a spotter, tell me, okay?" said Franco.

Needles nodded and retrieved his uniform shirt. "I think that's enough exercise for today." he said as he buttoned it. "I'll be upstairs in a couple minutes."

Needles walked out to the bay, where the pictures and names of all the fallen heroes of 62 Truck were ensconced in a glass display case. He stood directly in front of the photo bearing the nameplate Battalion Chief Jerry Reilly. He let out a heavy sigh.

"I'm tryin', Jer. I'm really tryin'. You were the best. I just can't win with these guys. I tried to be their friend and I got no respect. So I tried bein' a hard-ass. Then they all got pissed off at me. Jesus." He ran his hand through his hair again. "Looks like I wasn't ready for this. Don't get me wrong, I always wanted to make chief, just not..." He swallowed hard. "Just not the way I did. And now these guys could lose everything 'cause of me. I-I don't think I can take it if they close this house. We're family, Jer. I wanna make things right, but it might already be too late. I'm sorry I let you down, know ya thought of a lotta me for a young chief. I fuckin' miss ya, pal."

Needles walked back upstairs to the bathroom. This time, to splash some cold water into his red-rimmed eyes.

THE END