When Ed entered the office Mark was sitting at the table, obviously depressed.
The traces of dark blue paint on Ironside's damaged wheelchair matched the color of Alicia's car. Mark had read the report.
Ed hesitated to sit down. "I'm sorry," he said, not knowing how to show Mark that he really was.
Mark pushed his chair back angrily. He felt an urgent need to hurt the Sergeant who had hurt him so badly. He turned around towards Brown: "So you were right and I was wrong. And Alicia's wrongdoings will be used against all colored people!"
"True. Sorry about that too." Ed sounded sad, yet Mark couldn't accept his apology. He needed an outlet for his fury. "It must feel good to come down on a friend like a ton of bricks." He clenched his fists, ready to attack the other man.
Ed didn't budge. This time he looked directly into Mark's eyes. "No, Mark, not again. Not today. Please." His voice was hoarse and low. He would not be able to take another beating. This time he would have to defend himself, and one of them – or both – would get hurt, perhaps seriously. He didn't want that to happen but there was not much he could do to prevent it if Mark went through with it. "Please."
Surprised Mark stopped short and tilted his head: "I would sure like to know why I should not clobber you here and now. Perhaps 'cos daddy Ironside will come too late to protect you?"
Ed remained silent.
"Now, why?!" Mark pushed.
"Vietnam," Ed whispered.
Finally the penny dropped. Mark could have slapped himself. Of course he had known that Ed had been wounded in Vietnam, but he didn't know the details, and he hadn't been aware that the injury could still weaken his back in extreme situations.
"Last time I took you on I hurt you," he stated slowly, seemingly emotionless.
Ed nodded, embarrassed. Mark understood everything now: That was why Ed moved so stiffly... and that explained his strange behavior. It had never been rejection. The creases on Ed's pale face revealed that he was still in pain. Why on earth hadn't he said anything?
"And you didn't want me to know so I wouldn't feel guilty about it..." Ed had wanted to protect him! "Because our friendship is important to you..."
He took a deep breath. "Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked, pointing at Ed's back.
Ed understood that right now he had the easier task of the two of them. "No, thanks." He managed a cross between a grimace and a smile, and Mark thought that by Ed's standards and with a little imagination this could almost be considered as a mischievous grin. "But I don't really want to find out if I could still beat you!"
Ironside, who had quietly rolled in, had overheard the better part of the conversation. He knew enough now, and he felt relieved beyond belief. Sliding down the end of the ramp he said: "Sergeant, go home and take two days off or as long as you need to get back on your feet."
Almost beseechingly Ed protested: "Sir, I can handle this!"
Of course he could. Without the additional trouble of a quarrel with his friend he could manage the physical pain, Ironside was sure of that. It was what he did all too often himself. The difference was that Ed didn't need to. The Chief didn't want his friends to be like him. They should be young and carefree, all of them. How should he tell that to Ed without sounding pathetic? He chose his favorite grumpy mode:
"Of course you can, the way you have these last few days: stepping on everybody's toes. And then you expect me to keep everybody off your back, from teenagers to law students to police commissioners! Forget it, Sergeant!" Then his voice softened. "Go home, Ed – but before you do, let's toast to your everlasting friendship."