A/N: This is the prequel to my story "Breathe." I would recommend reading that first, but it's definitely not required!
To those who wandered over here from "Breathe"... enjoy. ;)
Part I: Boy Meets Girl
Spike was running late to work, so naturally his car picked that morning to run out of gas. Shit, he thought, pulling into the closest station. Greg and Ed were going to be on his back about this one, because today wasn't just any day at the SRU—today they were running drills with the thirty remaining candidates for the open spot on Team One, which meant that he had to be on hand for the evaluation process.
Cursing his luck, he jammed his credit card into the first machine available. "Come on, come on," he muttered, waiting impatiently for the transaction to be validated.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," a female voice snapped on the other side of the pump.
Someone, it seemed, had gotten off to an even worse start this morning than Spike.
"Why the hell won't you accept this card, you piece of shit—"
Spike couldn't help it. Even though he was running late, even though he was supposed to be filling up his own car, he peered over… and promptly got an eyeful of yoga pants, because the woman had dropped her credit card and was apparently flexible enough to pick it up without bending her knees.
"Fuck," she grumbled, straightening. Spike caught a glimpse of bright green eyes before she turned around and opened her car door. (With him still staring, because he kind of had this thing for girls in yoga pants, and it really wasn't helping that her legs were fantastic.)
The next second, though, he winced, because Madonna's "Like a Virgin" was blaring from her speakers. Madonna was okay and all, but he had no interest in anything from the eighties at this ungodly hour. He silently deducted a few points, only to give them all back when she bent over again to fish through her purse.
She resurfaced and stiffened, the only warning he had before she said loudly, "Do you want to take a picture or something?"
"Um," was the only thing Spike could stutter when she whirled around. He was pretty sure his face could have matched a fire hydrant.
She lifted an eyebrow, folding her arms across her chest. She was a few years younger than him, and probably at least sixty pounds lighter, but he could tell right away that she wasn't going to take any of his crap. "I-I'm so sorry," he stammered—and he meant it, he knew women had to deal with assholes all the time and he had always tried to be discreet. "I wasn't… I mean, I was, but I wasn't going to harass you or anything—" His foot was so far down his throat, his stomach had already started digesting.
And she was still watching him, but now the corner of her mouth were twitching and—was she?—yes, she was definitely trying not to laugh. He didn't know what was worse: how mortifying it all was, or the fact that he couldn't stop looking at her hair, which was shoulder-length and still damp from the shower. It reminded him of chocolate and cinnamon and he clearly hadn't gotten enough sleep last night.
"Tell you what," she said. "We'll pretend this never happened."
Spike was all too happy to agree. But then something occurred to him, and he told her, "Hold the credit card in for a few seconds."
"What?" She blinked, instantly suspicious.
"I thought I heard you saying something about the machine not taking your credit card?" Fuck, he knew what he'd heard—but she was the kind of girl who could have ripped him to shreds in high school without even trying, so it came out like a second-guessed question. "That's the shitty pump, it makes you leave it in longer."
"Oh." She looked down at the plastic in her hand. "Uh, thanks." She glanced back up, and he thought he was about to get a smile; but then she said, "Your pump's dripping."
Sure enough, it was. All over his shoes.
It was probably a metaphor for something.
He managed to get to work in time, but barely, so of course Ed glanced up from the sign-in sheet long enough to say something about it. There was no time for a lengthier reprimand, though: the final thirty recruits were assembling in the gym, ready for the first round of drills. At the end of the day, twenty-nine of them would be gone, and they knew it. None of them were talking to each other.
Greg had already gone through all of their applications, but it was the first time Spike had seen any of them. He quickly found Lou, who was surveying the candidates with a grin on his face. "Remember being in their shoes?" Lou asked, smirking. "Can't say I miss it."
"Who do you think's going to be the first to puke?"
Before Lou could answer, they were joined by the rest of Team One. If the recruits had been quiet earlier, now Spike could hear them breathing.
After a quick speech, Greg divided the candidates into seven groups. He was responsible for conducting the psychological evaluation, so his recruits were directed to the briefing room. Rolie was running negotiation, and his simulations would make or break some of the strongest applicants. Ed brought another group to the shooting range, where he was sure to make at least one of them lose their cool. (Spike knew what it was like to have Ed yelling in your ear while you were trying to hit a target, and it was not pleasant.) Jules was in charge of the obstacle course they'd set up outside; one guy was already checking her out, and Spike was willing to bet that he wouldn't be back tomorrow. Wordy and Lou took their groups to the annex building used for entry practice, leaving Spike to assess the combat skills of his own recruits.
"All right," he said, glancing at the candidates in front of him, "I'm going to run you through some sparring exercises…" And then he stopped, because his gaze had landed on a familiar pair of green eyes.
It was the woman from the gas station, her cheeks turning pink as she stared determinedly back at him.
She was still wearing those yoga pants.
Spike's hesitation lasted no more than a second, but it was long enough for the male recruits to notice. Some of them looked annoyed, and he had a sinking feeling that they were going to grumble about favoritism if they didn't advance and the woman did. The rest were eying her like she was a piece of meat. A piece of meat they either wanted to humiliate on the sparring mat or fuck on their mattress.
"I'm going to run you through some sparring exercises," he continued, clearing his throat. The men finally tore their eyes away from the woman, whose face had grown steadily colder. "Why don't you partner up—no, wait, I'll pair you off." He cringed at how feeble he sounded. He was already younger than most of the guys in front of him, he didn't need to give them another reason to question his authority.
He quickly took attendance, making sure that everyone in his group was accounted for. The woman, Keira Ford, didn't so much as bat an eyelash when Spike called her name. She was already over the surprise of seeing him, and a look of quiet determination had settled over her. Spike hoped, for her sake, that she could hold her own against the other guys.
After pairing the recruits up—Spike purposefully put Keira with the least intimidating, douchey-looking guy of the bunch, and he had a feeling this didn't escape her attention—he ran them through some basic drills. Take-downs, chokeholds, headlocks, ground maneuvers, anything and everything he could think of; and he watched with satisfaction as Keira easily got the better of her opponent, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.
Eventually he had them form a circle, and one by one he called them into the center of the ring to defend a series of "attacks" from the other recruits. When it was Keira's turn, she stepped into the middle and coolly surveyed the men around her, as if daring them to try their luck. The silent challenge in her eyes ruffled more than a few feathers. Spike could see the men's distaste for her, and he had a good idea what was running through their minds: affirmative action, feminism at its worst, upstarts needing to be taught a lesson.
It wasn't long before someone took the bait: Sean Hannigan, a recruit of the all brawn and no brains variety, who bore a rather striking resemblance to a truck and probably could have eaten Keira for breakfast. Based on Spike's observations, his sparring "technique" consisted of charging his opponent and pummeling them until they gave up—which almost always worked, given how much power he could pack into each of his punches. On the other hand, his speed and agility were practically nonexistent, which could potentially be exploited by the right person.
Only Spike had no idea if Keira was up for the task. She'd done well enough with her first partner, but the size difference between her and Sean was so pronounced that he was actually concerned for her safety. Yet if he interfered in any way, then it wouldn't be fair to the others. He couldn't make allowances for someone just because they were smaller than the rest of the competition, not to mention the can of worms he'd be opening when that someone was a woman.
There was no choice but to let things play out and hope Keira could handle Hannigan on her own. Spike's misgivings lingered, however, and increased when he saw the glimmer in Hannigan's eyes. "Want me to go easy on you?" the recruit asked as he stood in front of her. His tone was all benevolence, but there was no mistaking the snide undercurrent to it. "You don't look like you could take much of a hit. No offense." He laughed, as if the issue were her size and not her gender.
"That's okay," Keira replied easily. "You don't look like you could land one on me. No offense."
Please let her win, Spike thought, barely managing to stifle a smirk. Please let her kick his ass.
As it turned out, he didn't need to worry. From the moment the match began, Keira toyed with Sean like he was a warm-up. She was smart enough to recognize that she couldn't beat him in a boxing match, so instead she chose to outmaneuver him. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get in a single strike, let alone pin her down long enough to take her to the ground. Whenever he came close, Keira would simply slip away, never giving him a chance to get the upper hand. Soon she had him literally spinning in circles, grunting in frustration each time she danced out of his reach.
"You can't keep this cute shit up forever, Barbie," Sean finally snapped, losing his temper when he almost tripped over his own feet after Keira eluded him yet again.
"Hey," Spike growled in warning, just as he located Sean's name on his clipboard and wrote a big fat NO next to it.
Keira didn't respond, although her eyes had narrowed into slits. The next time Sean barreled towards her, she didn't dart away. Instead, she stepped into the attack, trapped his arm, and used it for leverage as she kicked his legs out from under him. Sean had just enough wits left to bring her down with him, and Spike winced at the sound her back made as it slammed against the mat. Sean climbed on top of her, and for a moment Spike thought it was all over—but then Keira hooked one leg over his neck and twisted, forcing him into a painful-looking hold. Sean struggled for several seconds, his anger and ruined pride palpable, before conceding the match.
Keira released him at once and stood up. There was a slight pause as the other recruits scrambled to reevaluate their opinions of her, most of them coming up at a loss. Eventually, a brave soul jumped in to attack her—and then Spike had the supreme pleasure of watching her wipe the floor with every last one of them, more than making up for her shorter stature as she defended herself with breathtaking ease.
Sean made one final play for redemption, wrapping his arm around her neck in a choke that Spike instantly knew wasn't fake. Before Keira could fend him off, he used his superior strength to simply lift her off her feet, holding her up with a smirk as if to emphasize how helpless she would be in the face of a real threat. Keira's legs flailed almost comically in the air; in a single stroke, and in those few seconds, she was on the verge of losing what little respect she'd wrung from the men.
But while the others had started chuckling, some of them looking relieved that one of their own had finally put the woman in her place, it was Keira who had the last laugh. With a few well-aimed strikes to Sean's kidney and groin, Keira dislodged him enough to break the hold; then, moving so fast that Spike didn't realize what was happening until it was already over, she brought him to the ground and delivered what would have been a nose-breaking elbow had she not stopped herself at the last second.
"Still want to call me Barbie?" Spike could have sworn he heard her whisper in Sean's ear.
After a few more drills, in which it became clear—to Spike's satisfaction, and the other recruits' collective annoyance—that Keira was the most qualified martial artist of the group, he sent them on their way. He tried to catch Keira's eye while she was gathering her belongings, even though he wasn't sure what he wanted to say, or if in fact it was a good idea for him to say anything at all. But she studiously ignored him, hoisting up her bag and following the others on to the next station without a backwards glance. It occurred to him that she, too, wanted to avoid any accusations of favoritism; she might even have been irritated with him for picking her first sparring partner the way he had. And she would have had a point on both accounts.
He didn't see her again until late that afternoon, when by chance he came across her as he was exiting the bathroom. The recruits had finished for the day, so most of them were long gone. Keira was getting ready to leave as well, her car keys on the floor beside her as she laced up her sneakers. With her cell phone tucked between her head and shoulder, she didn't notice Spike emerging into the corridor.
"I think it went okay," she was saying. "I'm not sure. They don't tell you anything, obviously. And there were a lot of really good candidates. I probably didn't make it." She paused for a moment, listening; a faint blush, and a small grin, came to her face. "Thanks." By now, Spike was close enough to hear a male voice on the other end of the line. "Yeah, the psych eval was rough, I—" She glanced up and saw Spike approaching. "I'll tell you about it at dinner, okay? I'll be home soon. Say hi to the little Power Ranger for me. Bye."
"Husband?" Spike asked as she hung up.
Keira shook her head. "Brother."
"Ah." Spike hesitated, wondering if the kid was hers. He didn't dare ask. "You guys live together?"
"Yeah." She looked away and started picking up her things, a non-verbal "fuck off" if there ever was one.
"Well, hey, no judgment here, I still live with my parents," Spike said, in case she thought he'd meant the question as a criticism. But Keira was already standing up, clearly eager to leave, and he didn't want to be the person who overstayed their welcome in a conversation. "You were really good today," he remarked instead, reasoning that there was nothing wrong with a little post-tryout encouragement before they parted ways.
But apparently he'd reasoned incorrectly, because Keira's expression soured as she turned to face him. "You made it easy for me," she replied bluntly. "You set me up with the smallest guy in the room."
And there was really nothing he could say to that, because she was right—even though she'd proven more than capable of holding her own.
"If I make the team," she told him, frowning, "I want to know I did it because I earned it. Not because I had someone helping me."
In spite of his embarrassment, he found himself admiring her for confronting him like this, when she had little to gain and everything to lose—he was, after all, one of the people involved in the hiring process. "Look, you're right," he said, because the first thing he owed her was an apology. "I did put you with someone I thought wasn't going to give you a hard time. Not just because of the size issue, but, well… some of these guys can be assholes when they feel threatened by a woman. But I shouldn't have done it at all, and I'm sorry. For what it's worth, you obviously didn't need my interference."
She considered his apology, looking slightly mollified. "Thanks," she muttered at length. "I should get going."
"Have a good night," he replied—but she was already walking away from him, so he had to call after her like an idiot. Keira slowed down for a second, her shoulders tensing as if she might turn around; but then she merely nodded and kept going, leaving Spike to wonder if he'd ever had a more awkward first encounter with someone.
"So," Greg began, once the beer and pizza had arrived and the members of Team One were settled in the briefing room for what promised to be a long night, "ladies first. Jules, any standouts?"
It was Spike's first time on the other side of the decision-making process, but he had a vague idea of how today's would go. First, each officer had a chance to name the candidates who'd caught their eye. Anyone who had made it this far was already among the best in the city, so it was doubly impressive if they managed to outshine their peers—and doing so gave their applications extra weight once the team started going through them one by one.
Spike already knew his top choice—even after six more rounds of recruits, no one else had sailed so easily through his drills—but he was still pleasantly surprised when Jules, without any hesitation, supplied Keira's name.
"Keira Ford," Greg repeated. There was a shuffling sound as everyone searched for her file. "Twenty-seven years old, originally from Vancouver, currently serving in the 55th. Recommended to us by her sergeant, Bill."
"She's got a brother serving in the 55th with her," Rolie noted. "Jason Ford. I've worked with him before, he's a good officer."
Wordy frowned. "Isn't she kind of young for the SRU? She's only got five years of experience."
"I didn't have that much more," Spike pointed out.
"Jules, why'd you pick her?" Greg wanted to know.
Jules shrugged. "Easy. She kicked ass and took names all over the obstacle course. I've never seen so many grown men that close to crying."
It took a while for the laughter to die down, namely because Rolie choked on his beer and had to spit it back out into the bottle. When things were finally calm enough to proceed, Spike ventured, "I'm with Jules. She was hands-down the best that I saw. Wordy, she'd give you a run for your money."
There were some murmurs at that: Wordy was their go-to guy for martial arts expertise.
"She did fine at entry," Lou said, prompting a nod of agreement from Wordy. "Fast and efficient. Probably wouldn't send her in to break down the heaviest door, but—"
"We've got Wordy for that," Greg finished, grinning. "All right, Eddie?"
"No complaints here," Ed replied with a shrug. "She wasn't the best, but she was good. Kept her cool under fire."
"Under you, you mean," Wordy remarked, drawing a smile from Ed—but nothing in the way of denial.
The sandy-haired officer glanced up from his notes. "She successfully talked down two subjects and a jumper. Got the sense that she was doing it by the book, so I threw in a few curveballs, but she held it together. Didn't get flustered, didn't let the subject lead her. Not the best bedside manner, though."
"What do you mean?" Greg inquired.
"Well, like I said, she was going pretty strictly by the book. Negotiation 101, like she was reading from a script the entire time. She did everything right, but it was kind of… impersonal. Didn't do small talk, didn't really put herself out there."
"Huh." Greg frowned. "Did anyone see her interacting with the other recruits?"
There was a collective pause as everyone racked their memories. "She didn't," Lou finally said, and the others reported more or less the same.
"What'd you think of her, boss?" Ed asked.
There was a noticeable hesitation before Greg responded. Shit, Spike thought, fearing the worst. She failed the psych eval. All too often, candidates who looked great on paper and excelled at the physical aspects of the job were tripped up by the psychological component. They second-guessed themselves, dwelled too much on their mistakes, or simply weren't prepared for what they'd witness in the line of duty. And Greg was better at picking them out than most.
"I'm not sure," the sergeant finally replied. "First impression was that she was polite, but distant. She answered all my questions, but never elaborated unless I asked her to. I got the sense that she didn't want to talk about her background."
"Her background?" Wordy echoed. "Like, her family? Or her resume?"
"Family," Greg responded. "She mentioned a brother and a nephew, but she stopped engaging when I asked about her parents. Got a lot of monosyllabic answers. Seems like there are some issues there."
"Yeah, but that's not going to affect her job performance, is it?" Spike couldn't resist asking. "Not everyone gets along with their parents."
"That's true," Greg conceded, glancing at him. "Then again, if we get a call and it has to do with family relationships, she might have some biases that she can't separate from the situation. That said, she's clearly done her homework. She took it in stride when I corrected her, didn't get defensive—which is more than I can say about some of her peers."
There were some chuckles at that; they'd already heard about the worst of the evaluations.
"Let's move on for now," Greg suggested, "and come back to Keira later."
Spike's phone buzzed. As his teammates began discussing another candidate, he discreetly checked his inbox, finding a text from Lou.
So, do you want her on the team because of her skills, or her yoga pants?
Don't be sexist, Spike texted back, although the correct answer was probably closer to "both" than he would have liked. Go away.
He saw Lou smirk when he read the message, but there was no more time for texting. Over the next few hours, Team One whittled the thirty remaining candidates down to three final choices: a senior officer with extensive experience in negotiations, but who had visibly struggled during the physical drills; a recruit whose cumulative marks were higher than all his fellow contenders', but had the tendency of losing focus or getting flustered on the rare occasion he made a mistake; and Keira, whose excellent scores and ability to remain calm under pressure had kept her consistently in the running—although Spike noticed that Greg had remained conspicuously quiet each time her name came up.
"All right, so, we all know Jules is gunning to have her name removed from the door to the ladies' locker room," Ed remarked when it was time to review Keira's application again. Spike silently thanked Jules for continuing to advocate for Keira throughout the night, which had allowed him to ease off and avoid further snarky commentary from Lou. But now that they were on the last round of discussions before they took a vote, he was prepared to step up to bat again if necessary—although he had a feeling that the only holdout left was Greg.
"Wordy, what do you think? Would you want her on our team?" Ed asked.
Wordy had long ago overcome his reservations about Keira's age, once he'd seen her impressive scores and read the glowing letter of recommendation from her sergeant; now he nodded, saying, "I agree with Jules. Keira's gone above and beyond our qualifications, and she's got a good head on her shoulders, so she's got my vote. Besides, we need more women at the SRU."
"What, a wife and all daughters and you don't have enough women in your life?" Rolie snickered.
Wordy waved him off good-naturedly. "I'm serious, though. Too many old bald guys around here, right, Ed?"
"Hey, you'll be getting there soon enough." Ed grinned. "Lou?"
"Fine by me," Lou said with a shrug; his preferred recruit had already been knocked out of the running because of their abysmal score on the negotiation test. "At least we won't have to worry about her having a heart attack when we're doing drills."
"Hey, Arthur would be a solid addition to the team," Rolie retorted, defending his top choice. "He's been in the force longer than Keira's been alive."
"…Which is exactly my point."
"Go easy on the old folks, Lou," Greg admonished with a chuckle, diffusing what might have devolved into an actual argument. "We're not all that bad. Spike, what do you think?"
Spike took care to weigh his words before replying. "I'm with Jules and Wordy. She seems kind of socially awkward, but that's not a big deal. I like the fact that she doesn't—" Easy there, he warned himself—"didn't take shit from anyone. I mean, you had to see her beat the crap out of all those guys. It was beautiful."
"The man's in love," Lou cracked.
As the team had a laugh at his expense, Spike wadded up the nearest napkin and whipped it at his friend. Lou gave him a look that said, Really? Are you two? and chucked it right back, his aim far more accurate than Spike's.
"Greg, what about you?" Ed finally asked.
The others quieted down as Greg ruminated for a moment—a moment that was a little too long for Spike's comfort. "I think," he eventually began, "it's important to remember that a team is the sum of its parts. We have to consider who's going to be able to work cohesively with the existing unit, and who can contribute skills that we're either lacking or need more of. Which is why, Rolie, I'm not convinced Arthur's the person we need. He's an excellent negotiator, and I respect his expertise—but we've already got that area covered. I've been able to handle most of the subjects, and lately Jules has been stepping up to the plate as well. And she's done an excellent job of it." Ed clapped a smiling Jules on the back. "So while Arthur's great at what he does, he's not what I had in mind when I started the hiring process."
Greg paused for a few seconds and looked around at all of them. "What's become increasingly clear to me as we've been narrowing down the candidates is that this is a damn good team. We don't have any glaring gaps in the structure, and any individual weaknesses are balanced out by others' strengths. So it seems to me that we don't need anyone to make up for something we can't do ourselves—we need someone who can help us be better at what we do. More efficient, flexible; more capable of responding to the challenges that we face when we're out there." There were several nods of agreement as he spoke, even from Rolie. "And with that in mind, the person who best fits that criteria—I think, anyway—is Keira Ford."
"I thought you didn't like her holding back on you during the psych eval," Ed immediately countered.
"I didn't," Greg agreed. "But, judging by your observations of her"—he was addressing everyone now, not just Ed—"she might just not be all that outgoing. Which is okay until proven otherwise. Does that sound reasonable to you, Ed?"
"If it's fine with you, it's fine with me," Ed replied. "Should we take a vote?"
They all agreed to Ed's suggestion. A minute later, Spike had to repress a triumphant fist pump as Keira officially became the youngest member of Team One.
Jules had no such compunctions. "Finally, some more lady power," she crowed when the vote was over. "You guys better watch out."
"I'm quivering in my combat boots," Ed deadpanned. "Or, I would, except I think the boss weighs more than the two of you combined…"
Greg had never been above laughing at himself; he did so now, adding, "I think it's safe to say we've all learned from Jules that it's not the size of the package that matters."
Spike smirked. "There's an inappropriate joke in there, boss."
"Okay, okay." Amidst the groans and laughter that had followed Spike's remark, Greg held up his hands. "Obviously it's time for us to go home. Is everyone okay with the decision we've made today? Ed?" One by one he went around the group, making eye contact with each person as they gave their response. When it was Spike's turn, he didn't hesitate; his "yes" was loud and clear.
"All right," Greg said after they had all given their consent. With a sigh of relief, he closed his hiring binder. "Keira Ford, welcome to Team One."