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It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken

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"…so Shel and I figure we'll surprise her. We'll just go out for dinner like we normally do for birthdays, and then surprise her with the tickets then." Wordy settled into his chair, clearly savouring the fact that this was the last briefing before three days of well-earned time-off.

"Well, I'm glad you're not surprising me." Ed claimed his own chair from where he could easily watch the entire table and keep control of the rabble. "I just can't believe it costs that much to go to the ballet these days."

"At least it's not that Twilight crap," Spike chimed in. If you ever wanted an honest opinion on something, Spike was your man to ask. The difficulty would be getting that opinion in anything under five-hundred words, of course. "Because…"

"Hey, you know, if it keeps my girl happy." Wordy looked so beatific that Greg felt a twinge of physical pain at what was to come.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Greg started. He could see the horror take over everyone's features.

"Then don't." Ed picked his usual route of direct simplicity.

"But, I'm sure you know there is a bad flu going around this year, along with all the usual seasonal nastiness." Greg tried to plow forward, knowing that these men were masters of denial. Jules and Leah could be more pragmatic, accepting their fates with little more than a sigh and a grumble. In fact, Jules already did sigh, seeing the punch line and reaching for her Blackberry to deliver the bad news to somebody else. "Meaning, we're a little shorthanded. Team Two is down three people, and Team Four is pretty much useless with five guys out. Even Team Three is missing two. Don't even ask about Team Five." He did his best to ignore the groans coming at him from all directions. The only thing they had to do with the flu was frustration. "I know, I know… you all had plans. I had plans." That one garnered a few curious looks that he also chose to ignore. "However, all time off is – unfortunately – hereby cancelled for all officers unaffected by illness, yadda, yadda, yadda. I can see you all care."

"Let me get this straight," Wordy spoke with the precision of a man less than two seconds away from snapping. "We're being, in effect, punished for staying healthy. And that if we had gotten ill, we would have been entitled to our scheduled time off, that – might I add – some of us booked well in advance…"

"I'm afraid, Officer Wordsworth, that that is one of the unfortunate downsides of a mostly highly rewarding career dedicated to keeping the peace…"

"'Unfortunate downside'?" Spike interrupted. "Did you just take a position with the Department of Redundancy Department?"

"That'll be enough out of you," Greg said. He did his best to hide the smile. There was a bit of edge to the comment, sure, but it was also a sign the man was slowly reverting to his habit of speaking without allowing any intervention on behalf of his brain. 'Bomb guys are different' was the oft-spoken rule of Strategic Response, but most of the ones Greg had ever worked with tended to be introspective, practical, methodical types who took their work very seriously. They didn't mothball half their safety gear, calling it 'incredibly wishful thinking.' It wasn't that he was reckless – far from it. It was more that in his mind, the meagre protection gained from being swaddled in layers of thick, movement-restricting padding was far less than the combined disadvantages of inhibited vision, decreased mobility and paralysing effects of claustrophobia.

"But why us?" Wordy couldn't let go, and Greg couldn't really blame him. Time off, for the man, was family time. It was hard to get enough of that, and unlike some people Greg could name, even at this very table, Wordy took what he got very seriously.

"Because, in defiance of all odds and natural order, Team One – us – is the only fully functional and physically healthy one in the SRU." Mental health wasn't something Greg would place a bet on.

He didn't think about what that said about him. Probably the most dangerously unstable of them all – after all, you only wanted the best in charge, right? "Physically healthy, though God only knows why."

"It's because we take such wonderful care of ourselves," Spike theorised.

"Spike, you once told me you were on the 'three c's' diet: caffeine, chips and candy." Ed probably had the biggest soft-spot for the class clown. "With the occasional divergence into cake and cookies. If it weren't for your mother, you'd be dead years ago."

Whether Spike had a response to that or not was moot. The alarm sounded, cutting off any further chance for griping. Bitch however much they might, the job was the job and they'd do it.

"Please, just let it end." Spike made a show of dragging himself to the weight bench before falling over it. "Six calls in fourteen hours… can't at least one or two of them be ass-calls from some idiot too stupid to figure out how to lock his keyboard? Do they all have to be real?"

"I'd rather real, than the system getting overwhelmed by nuisance calls." Leah looked annoyingly non-exhausted. Spike would have been tempted to call her a robot, but even Babycakes would have had the decency to look a little battered after as many flights of stairs and city-blocks as the team had just covered.

"So, in the meantime, we're just overwhelmed by people going crazy." He wasn't sure he liked the woman, which was a little odd for two reasons. One, he liked almost everybody. Two, she hadn't done anything really unlikeable, she just set him on edge. She was just too calm, cool, and collected, all the damn time. And she wasn't Lew. He'd admit it. That was a big one. "Why aren't you tired, anyway?"

"I am. I also haven't spent the better part of the day dehydrating myself."

"Excuse me?" Spike sat up half-way, all the better to give her the evil eye.

"You've had, what? Four extra large coffees, today? Already?" She didn't add that bulk of them had been in the last four hours. She was probably saving that up for later.

"And your point?"

"Caffeine is a diuretic."

Now he sat up all the way – caffeine wasn't the only way to get sudden small bursts of adrenaline. "You think I don't know that? Do you think I'm stupid? Or maybe I should just fall asleep next time Boss asks me to find something out for him, hmm?"

"I didn't…"

"Hey." Ed interrupted as only he could, walking in from the locker-room with an 'I don't even want to know about it' look in his eye. "Both of you, hit the showers, grab a change of gear. Now." He focussed most of his glare on Spike, which Spike thought was a little unfair. "You can hash this out later when you've both had time to think."

Behind Ed's back Leah made a face that needed little skill to interpret. It was a look Spike had seen a million times, a little insulted combined with a who is this alien? subtext. He didn't need this. He was too tired and too wired to deal with somebody with that kind of mindset, today.

"Hey. We're all tired." Ed started herding him out of the room, once again showing favouritism for the rookie. "We're all on edge. But we've got a long shift still ahead of us, and the last thing we need is to start coming apart. So…" He lowered his voice to a volume only Spike could hear. "Shower, grab a change of gear and then grab a couple minutes for a nap if you can."

"I'm not…" Sometimes the way Ed treated him like a little kid got on his nerves, too. Most times he was okay with it, but not when it reinforced the image in the mind of someone who was in the process of writing him off as irredeemable and hopeless.

"She's right. Dehydration'll get you almost as bad as lack of sleep. You've got a case of both, which is why you're not thinking straight."

"I'm thinking fine," Spike mumbled. Hell, even if he wasn't thinking up to his normal speed it was still better than the rest of them.

"Shower. Change. Drink some water. Sleep. Or you're not going out."

"Promise, Ed? You really promise?" Any other day, yes, that would have been a threat. Today, he felt like falling over. Not that he wanted to sleep. He wasn't tired enough to sleep, yet, because if he went to sleep he was liable to dream and even now they weren't the kind of dreams that led to a good night's sleep.

"What is going on with you, Spike?" Ed didn't look concerned, he looked tired and fed-up. "You haven't been yourself since…"

"Since when? Since my friend blew himself up instead of giving me a chance to save him? Since you guys started acting like he never even existed?" He could feel the words piling up, the ones that would demolish every connection he'd ever built on this team. Behind Ed, he could see Leah's eyes widening; she probably didn't think anybody argued with Ed. Or maybe they hadn't bothered to tell her all of what happened.

"He saved you." Ed shook his head as though he couldn't believe he was hearing this. "There was nothing…"

"We don't know that. The weight-transfer could've worked. Maybe, if I could have tried, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Definitely if you'd tried, we wouldn't be having this conversation." Ed's shouting attracted attention – the others crowded the entrances, watching the show. "We wouldn't be having it because you would have been smeared all over that concrete with him. Lew knew that. Sam knew that. In fact, the only person who didn't seem to know that was the guy whose job it is to know those things."

"You don't think I can do my job?" It was a rule. He didn't tell Ed how to shoot and Ed didn't tell him how to handle explosives.

"When you've got your head up your ass, no, I don't." Ed took a step even closer in a classic move to intimidate. Spike didn't even flinch. Sometimes you had to stand your ground, even if it meant risking getting the crap beaten out of you, because if you didn't, you were guaranteed to be beaten for life.

"Okay, okay, I know we're all feeling a little short-tempered right now." Now the sarge started forward in the role of peacemaker. "So, before anybody says anything else they're going to regret, why don't we start taking walks in separate directions, okay? And that applies to everybody. We're exhausted, so the best thing we can do is not waste our energy getting into fights."

Spike didn't bother saying anything, refusing to break eye-contact with Ed who did the same. His jaw hurt from the effort of keeping his teeth from chattering; it wasn't fear but anger, all the way.

"Hey. I'm talking to both of you. Stand down, you can save the 'sorrys' for another time."

"I'm…" Ed started.

"Ed, don't argue with me, right now. Because I am not in a good mood." That was no idle threat. Sure, the boss seemed all mild-mannered, most of the time, but when he lost it, he lost it. "Now, both of you. Step back, turn around and walk away."

Ed was the first to move, a fraction of a millimetre and a fraction of a second faster than Spike, close enough for it to look simultaneous but first nonetheless, which was important. It meant he didn't back down, Ed did. Maybe he didn't win, but the important thing was that he didn't lose. Not now, not with everybody watching like this. Ed didn't have the same things at risk. People respected Ed. Nobody ever tried to walk over him.

"This goes for everybody," Sarge raised his voice, probably so he could later claim nobody had an opportunity to mishear. "Get a bite to eat, get some rest. Take advantage of the time, while we can. Because this ain't even close to being over, folks."

Spike wasn't sure just how many meanings that last sentence had. It could have been a reference to the long shift ahead, or a subtle hint that there would be ramifications for what just happened. Sarge believed in team unity. In the team as a family. Problem was, Sarge had been an only child and didn't really believe in sibling rivalry, let alone sibling all-out-war. He didn't understand how fricking annoying it could be when your big brother decided he had to poke his nose into everything and wouldn't let you have a bit of space and that sometimes you had to bloody that nose for him to get the message. Or when your older sister just had to tell you what to do, every waking second, until yelling was the only way to make her shut up.

"Spike? I won't tell you again. Walk." Sarge pointed towards the doors. "Now."

He did as he was told, if only because he knew that Ed was in as much trouble as he was, now. Behind him, he heard the boss' sigh. He tried to pretend he didn't.

"Wow." Five minutes ago Leah would never have believed, if someone told her two people would get into a fight, that the participants would be Spike and Ed. Then again, they were both puzzles to her, though Spike more so than Ed. Sometimes she just wished she knew what the man's problem was. She was fine if he didn't want to be her friend, but sometimes she got the sense he didn't want to be her colleague, either. Their argument hadn't surprised her. But from what she'd seen, the man practically worshiped Ed and Greg.

"Yeah, that was a long time coming." Wordy, on the other hand, didn't seem surprised at all. Out of all of them, he'd accepted her the most. Him and Sam; even Jules sometimes acted off-put, as though Leah had invaded her space. "I wondered how long they were going to keep babying him along."

"You mean, Spike?" That surprised her, too. Until now, she thought Wordy was at least tolerant of the man.

"Don't get me wrong. It's just that Ed's right." Wordy shook his head. "He hasn't been himself, lately, and I was wondering when somebody was going to call him on it."

"But not you." If she'd said that to Spike, he would have seen it as an accusation. He seemed to take everything she said as combative. It was frustrating having to deal with a man in his thirties going through the terrible-twos.

Jules answered before Wordy could. "You've just seen Spike get mad. Would you want to face that?"

She had to admit, she wouldn't. In defiance of logic, Spike had seemed to grow about two inches, nearly matching Ed in height.

"He spends so much time making himself look small and harmless that people don't realise he's not." Jules sighed. "When it's you against the world, there are two options. You can prove you're bigger and tougher than anybody else going, or you can be smart like Spike, and realise you can't take on everybody. So you do everything you can to appear unthreatening."

"Crouching over the keyboard all the time probably doesn't help," Leah said. It was another thing that set the man apart, made you wonder why someone who clearly wasn't the stand-out candidate for many parts of the job got the MVP treatment so much of the time. But Jules did have a point. Sometimes it was hard to remember that the man was taller than he looked.

"Hey, if you had half the talent with that keyboard as he does, you'd realise why the boss puts him on it, so much of the time." Unlike Wordy, Jules was clearly a member of Team Spike. Leah couldn't help but wonder what had caused that. This wasn't normal 'we like the guy, but…' loyalty. This went beyond normal team dynamics. Sure, if an outsider attacked a teammate it was always 'all for one'. But there always had to be room for internal criticism.

"Hey, hey… let's not forget what the boss just said." Wordy held up his hands in a gesture that unmistakably called for a truce. "Back down on the fighting, okay?"

Leah and Jules both nodded. "I just don't understand why he won't accept the fact that I am part of this team," Leah said.

"Well, that's different," Wordy relaxed, slipping into storyteller mode. It was clear the man had a lot of practice in soothing bruised egos and not taking sides until he knew what was going on. "To understand that, you have to understand Lew. He was a quiet guy. I swear, if you didn't make an effort to ask him a question, you'd get at most ten words out of him in a week, and that includes 'hello' and 'goodbye'. Then our EOD guy decides to hang it up, and keep in mind, that's not a position where we get a truckload of candidates to pick and choose from. But somehow, Greg tracks down this guy who not only wants the job, but on paper looks like he was born to it. I mean, the guy's got more degrees and certificates than I'd ever want to get in a lifetime. Only issue is why OPP doesn't want him. They say he's a loner. Anti-social. Not really a team player. Then again, he's a bomb-guy, right? They're different.

"Anyway, Greg convinces Danny – that's Daniel Rangford, the guy whose picture is up all over these walls, who put SRU together, just so you know – Greg convinces him to give the guy a shot; one of Greg's gut feelings. Now, I was feeling how you probably would have: we had to fight and prove ourselves to get on this team, and this guy's coming in sight-unseen to take a friend's job. And when he gets here, it's some skinny kid from Woodbridge and in ten minutes I already know the problem. He. Will. Not. Shut. Up. Not only that, but we find out he's claustrophobic – anything much smaller than the van and he starts freaking out."

"Meaning…" Leah prompted, knowing there had to be a point beyond the fact that if any of them showed symptoms of a phobia that might negatively impact their ability to do the job, they wouldn't be here.

"Meaning he won't wear the safety gear. Ever. Oh, he had some rationalisation that he handed out to Greg about it not being much more than a sop to everyone else's anxieties and that something with a big enough payload to kill you probably wouldn't be held back by a few layers of padding. That it restricted his movements and increased the failure odds more than it served as a safeguard. Anyway, the point is, this guy seemed like a total prima-donna. Nothing was ever right. There was always a catch to everything, or we said something wrong. I could see Greg thinking that this was the biggest mistake he'd made, yet. I mean, what's one of the first rules of what we do? You gotta connect. This guy, this Michelangelo Scarlatti… he couldn't connect with anybody. It was like he was some alien who had a perfect grasp of the English language but didn't know what it meant to be human." Wordy shook his head, but his expression said it wasn't Greg who missed the mark, but the rest of them. "But on paper… so, Greg and Danny put their heads together and decided they'd give it a week. If he couldn't learn to get along by then…"

"Three days in it happened." The sound of Ed's voice behind her caused Leah to jump a little. She hadn't even heard him come back into the room. "We're all trying to figure out what to do with this guy when suddenly he walks over to Lew. Lew's just sitting on the bench, minding his own business. Like Wordy said, that's pretty much all Lew did, most of the time. And he sits down beside Lew and says 'You know what your problem is?'"

Wordy smiled at the memory. "Yeah, and Lew's looking at him like 'What? Who asked you if I had a problem?' You could just see right then and there that the kid was gonna get the axe. And then Spike says to him, 'You talk too much.'"

"I swear, we were a second away from throwing him out the door so hard he'd bounce on his ass all the way to the exit, when suddenly Lew starts laughing his head off. And he says 'I'll try not to do it again.'" Ed gave a little sigh, as though he wondered where that 'annoying guy' had gone. About a minute ago he'd been yelling. Now, he just sounded tired. "That was it. Like that. A guy we'd spent months with and barely knew his first name and suddenly the guy who'd just walked through the door has him in stitches. Needless to say, we're all standing there, stunned…"

"Except Greg," Wordy clarified.

Ed nodded. "Except Greg, who headed out of there like somebody had lit the place on fire. He tracks down Danny and drags him back to the locker-room. Before he even gets there, I hear Greg taking a strip off Danny. 'No empathy? Can't connect?' Now, you know Greg doesn't like people feeling left out. He'd tried everything he could think of to draw Lew out of that shell, but the guy didn't want to come. So he drags Danny into the doorway and points at Spike and Lew and if Spike's doing most of the talking, he's not doing all of it. And before Danny can even say a word, Greg says, 'We're keeping him.'"

Wordy straightened up, clearly storytime was coming to a close. "Lew even said to me at the end of the day, 'I don't know what your guys' problem is with the guy. He seems okay to me.' And after that, you couldn't get those guys apart with dynamite. Turned out, Lew was a funny guy. Brilliant one liners, but nobody ever bothered to set him up."

"They were meant for each other," Ed agreed. "Spike didn't even notice when he had to carry most of the conversation and Lew rarely minded not getting a word in edgewise. It was Lew that pointed out that maybe the reason Spike wasn't a team player was because nobody wanted him on their team."

"You know, the fat kid that always gets picked last," Wordy clarified.

"Except Spike was the kid who always got picked after that fat kid." Jules picked at some non-existent lint on her shirt. "Before Greg and Lew, I don't think anybody ever gave him a chance." She paused, taking a few breaths before continuing. "I've never seen anyone come apart the way Spike did. You know how we see people at their worst, all the time, but that…"

"And now he's trying to put himself back together as the other guy," Leah said. "Pick up the pieces…" The others stared at her as though she'd grown a second head. "Did I say something wrong?"

"Nooo," Wordy dragged the word out, as though stalling for time to find more. "I think you might be on to something."

Now it was her turn to stare. Wasn't it obvious? The Spike they described wasn't the one she'd met. The man she worked with barely ever smiled. What little he did had a ring of pity to it. If he talked at all, it had something directly to do with the job at hand. The only part that fit was the part about finding something wrong with everything. Half the reason she'd even gotten the position was her background with hazardous materials, but the gospel according to Scarlatti stated that she wasn't to be entrusted with handling a glass of water.

Ed nodded. "You said your experience taught you to 'carry them with you'. In Spike's mind, that's probably how to do it. First thing you gotta understand about Spike is his brain doesn't work the way yours does. Some times you'll wonder if it works at all, but most times you've just got to stand and admire the results." It sounded like he thought this was one of those times.

"Small wonder he's beating himself up." Wordy smiled as he shook his head. "Lew would have killed him for something like that. He always said Spike's biggest problem was that he cared too much."

"You know if the roles had been reversed, Spike woulda done the same thing, only faster." Ed rubbed his eyes, the first indication he'd given yet that he was feeling the long hours. "Even if Lew screwed up, Spike tried to shoulder the blame."

"Nothing's too much for a friend," Jules sighed.

"Problem is," Ed said, "he doesn't have a lot to spare."

"He's got all of you, hasn't he?" Leah had been about to say 'all of us', but she knew the word 'friend' had nothing to do with the relationship between her and Spike. 'People who spend time listening to the same conversations' was more the extent of it.

"We're not like Lew," Jules said.

"And we're all vulnerable." It looked like it cost Ed some just to make that admission. "And we're all he's got."

"You're kidding me." Leah had known one or two workaholics and Spike didn't strike her as the type. "He knows nobody, outside of work."

"Family – his parents, brothers and sisters…" Ed told her. "But he keeps them separate from this. We all try to. And it carries its own problems."

She tried to imagine being that lonely. To have simply work and family, with no space in between to just be herself. No wonder people here felt so sorry for the man.

"That's the funny thing," Wordy said. "If you'd seen them… you would have sworn Lew was the guy who sat around home nights, reading books until he fell asleep, and Spike was the guy out on the town, but it was the other way around. Lew dragged Spike away from his own little world. Made him meet people."

Ed nodded. "Remember Danny's retirement party? Here we have a legend in the SRU, the man to whom we all owed allegiance – and Spike doesn't show. We're sitting there, and suddenly Lew says 'I'll bet he forgot.'"

Wordy looked at the floor, shaking his head and smiling. "Sure enough, Lew calls him up and he's at home, buried in something or another that had to do with electrical engineering. Nobody explicitly said to him 'show up', so it never crossed his mind to do so. It wasn't that he didn't care, he just…"

"…didn't clue in." Ed finished for him. "If you don't actually say to him, 'Spike, are you coming?' he won't. He's just as happy burying himself in his stackfuls of books as he is coming to the bar with the rest of us."

"And when Ed says 'stackfuls'…" Jules smiled, the kind of smile that went thinking about a favourite pet or a strange relative just distant enough to be charming. "He's not kidding. Spike could go through a three-hundred page novel in an evening and still have time for a sit-down dinner with his family and catch the evening news. He reads everything."

"Which is why he also knows everything." Wordy said. "Two things you never play him at: Trivial Pursuit and Jenga. Trivial Pursuit, because like I said, he knows everything, and Jenga because he's got the steadiest hands I've ever seen."

"Houses of cards," Ed added. "It was almost a shame to knock them down because we wanted to play poker." He blinked rapidly, as though coming to a sudden realisation. "Don't get me wrong, we're glad you're here, but…"

"I understand," Leah said. She did, even though she couldn't help the slight pang of jealousy. That made her feel a little guilty; how fair was it to be envious of a dead man?

"He'll come around." Wordy seemed to be speaking more from hope than certainty. "Just give him some time."

Leah said nothing. She'd done nothing but give the man time. How much more would he need?

Sam didn't follow the others into the gym. He turned the other way, chasing down the guy he knew they'd all be gossiping about. As predicted, their path led to the locker-room. Guys' territory, where someone like, say, Leah couldn't follow. "You okay, Spike?"

"No, I'm not. So could you please just leave me alone?" Only Spike could be so matter-of-fact about it. Anyone else, even Jules and Leah, would have said 'yes' in a way that would have demanded the subject be dropped. He headed to a corner and sat cross-legged on the floor. The set-up left him protected on three sides and all he'd have to do would be to open wide the doors to the lockers on either side to give him cover for the fourth.

Anyone else, any time else, and Sam might have been happy to comply. But he and Spike had more in common than he'd ever wanted to share. And just as he was helping Leah figure out the tricks of dealing with this team, so Spike had done for him, revelling in the fact that he'd no longer been the rookie of record. Spike had been the first to truly break the ice between the team and its newest member, back then, asking a question so patently annoying that it had demanded a ridiculous response and then taking that response as intended. It was more than that, though. The worst was something deeper and darker – Spike had said as much today. It was why the others were in there and Sam out here: he knew the special hell of losing a friend and carrying the blame. And it was hell, there was no other word for it. "I would if I could, but…"

"It's a very big building. I'm sure you can find somewhere else to be." No one could do sarcasm quite like Spike. It had caught Sam by surprise the first time he'd heard it – his first assumption was that the man was nothing more than a goof. Who would have known that the class clown would have such a biting wit?

"Okay, well, maybe I just don't want to." One thing Sam knew he had on his side was stubbornness. Spike pretended to be hard-headed, but he thought too much to be truly mulish. After all, look at how easily Lew had fooled him into walking to safety. Lew was a good guy. He'd known what he had to do and did it. Spike didn't see it that way, of course. Spike never blamed anybody but himself for anything. Even after having a gun held to his head, he'd pointed less fingers than anybody else. Maybe he, too, had had faith in Darren's reluctance to shoot, but Sam didn't believe that. Spike just wasn't a blame kind of guy. "Call it a bad habit I've picked up around here. Called having a little sympathy for a guy who's having a bad day." He picked a bench and sat down, not quite willing to get down on Spike's level, yet.

"I don't need sympathy." Spike spoke with the true conviction of a liar. "You heard them. I'm just cranky. Naptime will make everything all better." His voice took on a sing-song quality, broadcasting his irritation to anybody who knew how to listen for it. You could even be Sam Braddock – near legendary for his inability to pick up on unspoken and even more than a few spoken cues– and not miss that one.

"Wasn't it you who told me that the human body could theoretically get by on two hours of sleep, per day, by breaking that up into multiple nap increments?" It had to have been Spike, no one else Sam knew would have used the phrase 'multiple nap increments.'

"That's not what they're talking about." Uncharacteristically, Spike refused to be distracted.

"I know. Look, I get it, Spike."

"No…" Spike caught himself in time and just shut his mouth, saying nothing more.

"And you've got more guts than I do, sticking around." He hoped he wasn't jamming both feet into his mouth. Spike seemed to be taking everything in the worst way, today.

Sure enough, the man did not disappoint. "Are you saying I should leave? Because I can. Is this your way of saying…"

"No, no, no." Sam held up his hands, if not in a gesture of peace then one of self-defence. "I'm saying I think you did good by not running away. I did. I would have." He remembered the murmur of voices behind him, after the shocked silence had dissipated. Most had been a blur he'd chosen to ignore, but one had risen above them. "Are you just going to let him do that?" Spike had demanded. Sam had expected such sentiments from Jules, even if he wasn't quite sure what their relationship actually was; he didn't think she was sure, either. But Spike… Spike was the guy he – Sam – had almost gotten killed. Spike should have been clamouring for his head. "But why can't you give Leah a chance? I've screwed up bigger than she has… I put you right in the line of fire."

"I am giving her a chance, okay? She…"

Won't give you one. Sam didn't say it, though he knew Spike was thinking it. He also knew why the man felt that way, even if the feelings weren't entirely justified. The truth was neither Spike nor Leah had much in the way of social skills, which made it small surprise each kept misreading the other. Leah tended to be uncomplicated, whereas for Spike, life was nothing but complexity. Leah was soft-spoken and direct; Spike could never say anything in less than fifty words. When he did, like now, it meant there was a problem. "Look, nobody's saying you have to make her your best friend…"

"Lew was my friend. And now he's gone. Okay, fine, let her have his spot, but I decide who backs me up, I decide who I'm going to trust, and she hasn't given me a reason to."

"Has she given you a reason not to?" Sam tried to keep his tone neutral, leaning neither to gossip or accusation. He'd never seen Spike this touchy. Greg and Ed were right, he probably did need sleep, and a lot more than what he'd lost on this shift. Sam recognised the symptoms. A lot of guys in his unit had had the same ones. He'd had them too, if he was to be honest about it. The nights where you never really bothered to get to sleep and sometimes you didn't even fake it until you spent your days sleepwalking. Running on automatic pilot, you tuned out everything you dared until you didn't hear the footsteps behind you, only realising when the gun was already pressed to your head. Or, he admitted guiltily, not hearing the subject's true intent but your own hurt and fears echoing back at you.

"I don't like her, okay, Sam? That good for you? Maybe it would help if she got off my case." A year ago Sam had never thought he'd even consider it, but he missed the exploding coffee cups, spontaneously combusting trashcans and fake-blood showers that meant Spike had too much time on his hands and nothing that serious to think about. Still, that wasn't a good reason for this much hostility. Spike was the peacemaker. He hated fights. Yet now he seemed capable of nothing but.

"She…" Sam stopped himself. He remembered some advice from Greg, first time he'd ever found himself at odds with Spike. "Whatever you do, don't try to argue with him. You won't win and even if you do, it's not worth what you'll lose." It was true, Sam realised. Greg never fought Spike and even for Ed, today's outburst was an exception. They negotiated, they coaxed, but they never got outright oppositional. "Okay, yeah, I can see how that would piss you off."

"Almost as bad as somebody trying to negotiate me," Spike agreed. Sam winced. The difference was that Ed and Greg were good at this. And they had seniority – Spike knew there was a price to pay if he didn't listen to them. "Face it, Sam, talking to people is not your forte."

"Well, how am I supposed to get better, if I don't practice?" Sam tried to hide a sigh of relief at Spike's jab, turning it instead into a yawn. "But seriously, sleep sounds good." If there was one thing he'd learned it was never to take Spike's insults seriously. What was said now, wouldn't mean a thing in five minutes. It was another thing that made the aggressive indifference the man had towards Leah more than a little disturbing. Part of that did come from Leah's side, Sam realised, even if it wasn't entirely her fault. She seemed to think there had to be a reason behind Spike's behaviour. But if talking wasn't Sam's forte, impulse control wasn't Spike's. He couldn't help saying the kinds of things most people merely thought. On the other hand, you always knew where you stood with him at any given moment, because he would tell you.

"But seriously," Spike mocked, "I gave up naptime in kindergarten."

"You once said you got kicked out of kindergarten, for trying to light the school on fire." It was probably true, to a given version of true.

"Teacher shouldn't have left the room, then, should have she?" Spike shrugged. "And I wasn't trying to set the school on fire. It was in the sandbox. It was all contained."

Sam shuddered, only partly counterfeit. "You were what? Five?" And his dad had thought it bad that his son found school merely boring. God only knew how the old man would have survived it with a kid like Spike who solved the problem by making his own entertainment. Then again, looking at it, was it any surprise he had the job he did?

"Yeah, so? It wasn't my fault I could read a fire-safety manual." The scary thing was, he probably could have. That was another Spike-legend: he'd taught himself to read at an age when other kids were still learning to talk in complete sentences. It probably hadn't hurt that he had older siblings he could imitate, but it was still quite the feat for a three-year-old. However, in typical Spike fashion he'd skipped a lot of steps in the process, meaning he could read a book but the alphabet had remained a mystery.

"The first thing that should have told you would have been not to play around with fire." Sam pulled his feet up onto the bench and put his head down on his knees. Even a couple of minutes spent at near-complete rest would be better than nothing. He was used to long days and tension, but it still took it out of you. The boss was right, the last thing they needed to do was get in fights, but everybody was too tired to stop it.

"I wasn't playing, I was experimenting." There was something a little too petulant in his tone. Why wouldn't he just admit he needed sleep, for God's sake? "Anyway, it's not my fault my parents failed to search me as hard as they did before Mass. I don't know why school had to be different."

Sam didn't even have to wonder what his dad would have done with a son that needed to be patted down to ensure he wasn't carrying such contraband as marbles, matches, chewing-gum, comic books, toy cars, dead rodents, live amphibians or any of the other things Spike claimed to have smuggled into church to relieve the tedium of a sermon. Sam wouldn't have lived long enough to get to kindergarten if he'd tried even half of what Spike did.

Sam lay back on the bench, not bothering to open his eyes. It was hard, but it was flat. Sure, there were bunks around, but they were a couple of rooms away and he didn't feel like moving that far. He'd slept in far more uncomfortable places. "Well, nobody's perfect."

"Mmmn." Spike didn't really answer. Sam hoped it was because the man was getting some shut-eye of his own, but he knew it was more a case of Spike not wanting to disturb his.

"Michelangelo Scarlatti, what am I going to do with you?" Greg spoke softly to himself, but the question was less than rhetorical. Something needed to be done – insubordination as blatant as Spike's couldn't be taken lightly. At the same time, it was an open secret that the man couldn't help himself. The trick to dealing with him was to avoid direct opposition, something Ed, in his exhaustion had forgotten to remember.

He leaned against the briefing room table, staring out the windows at nothing in particular. It wasn't hard to see that Spike was dealing poorly with Lew's death; how could it be expected otherwise? Greg had never seen a friendship grow that fast and that close. Nor did it surprise him that the department psychologist had been fooled – how fortunate for Spike that Luria had been on holidays. She would have known better than to believe the man who knew all the right things to say. She would have known that the quiet, competent-seeming Constable Scarlatti wasn't the same Spike who used to see suspicious packages as presents and never met a practical joke he didn't love. If Lew had been the first one on the team to accept Spike, then Luria had been the one to provide the tools for dealing with the man. Ten minutes after her first interview with him, she'd shown up at Greg's door with literature on ADHD and an injunction to familiarise himself with it. Diagnoses be damned, she'd told him, before sneakily making it Greg's challenge, saying he of all people should be able to manage someone so infinitely manageable when it was done right.

He rubbed his eyes. It wasn't all Spike's fault, of course. Tact and timing weren't Leah's strong points. Combine that and a rookie's anxiety to prove herself with Spike's emotional hypersensitivity and it was asking for disaster. At the same time, he couldn't expect Leah to singlehandedly adjust; it wasn't fair to let Spike be the only one to get away with everything. He was an adult, even if he couldn't always act like one.

It was the 'couldn't' that was the problem. The man had all the intellectual maturity of someone twice his age and the emotional stability of a four-year-old. Ironically, that trait was what made him so important to the alchemy of the team, for it came with a child's unlimited capacity for forgiveness. It was easy to offend him, but rare for him to remain that way. Tomorrow, he and Ed would have forgotten the incident ever happened, but Leah wouldn't be able to understand why the disruptive force was allowed such favour, essentially punishing her in her attempts to conform.

Nor would Spike understand the censure. He already saw himself as the aggrieved victim – if he'd recognised where he was in the wrong, he would have apologised already. It had been one of the hardest habits to break him of as even the most minor or imagined of offenses was met with an 'I'm sorry' and a near desperate fear that the world would turn against him. That right there was the key to understanding the man and his motivations – he always wanted to live up to the best expectations. Getting angry with him only strengthened his opposition; the greatest weapon against him was quiet disappointment.

There was, also, the environmental aspect to consider. Would any of this have happened without the team stretching themselves past the breaking point? Or would they have been able to continue tolerating each other?

He sighed. The situation with Spike and Leah wasn't that much different than the one between Sam and Donna had been, save for the fact that Jules had always been slated to come back, and Lew would never be able to. In fact, up to this point Spike had been slightly more civil than Sam had managed, a miracle to itself. Subtlety was not a Scarlatti hallmark.

Nor was the question purely confined to the events of a few minutes ago. The bigger concern was what to do with Spike period. To say he hadn't been himself didn't cover the half of it. There were glimpses every now and then – the occasional wisecrack or non-sequitur – but they seemed to be more reflex than born from the inner spark that used to drive him. There was a darker, nastier touch to the comments. The man was clearly hurting, the pain leaching out through his words.

Unfortunately, it wasn't hard to see that, and the worry was making the team tense. Spike could see that, and he could see he was the source, even if he didn't know why. Greg remembered the look on the man's face when he'd mentioned the federal headhunters. Not curiosity, not concern or even mild worry. Spike had been panicked. It was almost as though he'd feared being pushed out of the team, under the guise of encouragement. And while Greg told the kid he'd back him when the time came to move up and on, as far as he was concerned, that time couldn't come slowly enough. Spike wouldn't just be hard to replace; it'd be damned near impossible. Sure, there were plenty of other people who could tease info out of its secret hiding places or trace their way through the complicated wiring of a 'near ingenious' explosive device (not quite ingenious enough, claimed the genius, or he wouldn't have figured it out), but few who could do it with the near puppy-like charm of Michelangelo Scarlatti.

Spike hadn't seen that, however. He had so few places he felt welcome and he'd seemed to think that one of them was about to disappear. In one sense, his reaction to Leah was more the norm than the exception. Despite appearances, Spike never really let his guard down around people, never trusting them not to hurt him. That was where the trouble lay, Greg theorised. Lew had been the one person Spike had truly had faith in and in Spike's eyes that faith hadn't been repaid. In the end, Lew hadn't trusted him. It wasn't logical, but it was human. Spike was a walking, talking case of survivor's guilt and fear of abandonment.

Knowing that made some of this mess Greg's fault, too, loathe as he was to admit it. He should have done something weeks, if not months ago. He knew Spike wasn't getting help, after all it was no secret Ed had no love for such things as counselling and Spike wouldn't want to do anything that would lower Ed's estimation of him. He couldn't see that just because Ed was a damn fool didn't mean that he – Spike – had to be one as well.

Greg pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a headache. Was it too much to hope that by the time the next call came in, things would have resolved themselves?

At times like these, Wordy was found himself grateful that he wasn't in charge. The sarge would want to do something. He had a habit of making sure things got properly sorted out.

In Wordy's experience, this didn't need properly sorting out. It needed a little good yelling and a reminder of who, exactly, was in charge, and the combatants sent to their rooms for about a week. This last call didn't help things – Spike still snapped at any and everybody, grousing at being made to sit on his hands. Leah, on the other hand, didn't say anything, even to clarify what she'd been told. Sam did that for her, thank God, though if he was taking sides with Leah, it was only because Jules was such a fervent defender of Spike. Wordy did his best to stay out of it all. It was the only way to stay sane.

He watched as everyone split off onto separate paths. Sarge and Ed weren't really speaking, either. Which was fine, as long as Sarge didn't try to take over tactical, again.

Walking past the truck, he heard a noise. Clearly not everyone had left, yet.

Leah hopped out of the back of the truck, looking a little surprised to see him. "Why can't I do my job?" she blurted.

Wordy shrugged. "I don't know? Why can't you?" The answer was easy. He just wanted to see if she'd find it.

"I've got the skills, I've got the experience, I'm not a rookie…"

"So, why don't you believe that?" Wordy watched her carefully. She might explode like Spike, but he didn't think so. Leah was more measured. She tended to think things through. That was good. Two immature hotheads was all the team could handle.

"I…" The look on her face said it all. "What are you talking about?"

"You second-guess yourself." He leaned against the front of one of the SUVs. "Everything you do, you wonder if you did it right."

She raised her eyebrows, trying to express doubt in his abilities as a mind-reader. She wasn't that good, however. She only held it for a couple of seconds before nodding in surrender.

"Let me guess, it wasn't easy being a woman in the FD." It wasn't a guess, even. Nobody was more sexist than firefighters, not even SRU cops. Women were by far the minority – Leah would have had to prove herself at every turn, even if she'd proven herself before.

"No." A look of distaste flashed over her features. He'd seen that look before. The rare times Shel spoke of her ex, the same expression of fear and revulsion would appear. "But I managed."

"You're not there, anymore. You don't have to be perfect, here." He spread his arms wide. "In case you haven't noticed, we're pretty good at screw-ups, ourselves. What you've got to do is find your niche."

"Niche?" It was clear she was getting lost.

"Let's see… Sarge keeps talking way after he should have taken action, Ed can't take criticism, Sam is lousy at connecting with people, Jules takes everything she can personally, Spike can't hold a thought in his head longer than ten seconds, and I'm the one who gets shot." Come to think of it, that didn't leave her a lot of places to specialise when it came to mistakes.

"You get shot." She said it flatly, like she didn't believe a word of it.

"Thank God for Kevlar," Wordy confirmed. "Shel says we ought to invest in pharmaceuticals, considering the number of times I've come home with bruised or broken ribs."

"So, what you're saying is that I should screw up?" That, her face said, was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard.

"Nobody likes perfect," Wordy said. "What I'm saying, though, is don't be so scared of screwing up. You're here. You passed probation. It'll take an act of God to get you fired, now." He shrugged. "From this team, at least. I mean, if we put up with those other weirdos…" He rubbed his eyes. "If we don't know where your weaknesses are, we won't know where to cut you some slack." He could see she still didn't quite get it. "Look. Boss is a real fan of that Serenity prayer… the one about the courage to change what you can and accept what you can't? If we push you, it's because we think you've got it in you, not because we're out to get you."

"Most of you," she muttered. He figured it had to be the exhaustion. Leah only let stuff like that slip when she was tired or distracted.

"Not just most," he disagreed. "There's not a person here that you can't trust. But you might try letting your guard down first. Nobody's going to open up, if they don't think you'll return the favour." In those terms, it wasn't a surprise she got along best with Sam. It wasn't just the last rookie mentoring the new one. Sam couldn't sense her fear the way everyone else could. Who would have thought there was such a benefit to emotional tone-deafness? "You know what I tell my girls? Don't be afraid to offer to give somebody a hand with something. The worst they can do is say 'no'."

"And if they do?"

Wordy shrugged. "It's not the end of the world. People say 'no' for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they're just afraid of what will happen if they say yes." He yawned. "But I need to get some sleep before I fall over. Remember… nobody's perfect. Not even me. But I'm as close as it comes, so don't even try."

She actually smiled at that, a rare event. "I'll keep it in mind."

"Do that." He pushed himself away from the vehicle with some effort and started the trek towards the bunkroom. "Remind me," he yawned again, "next time to just call in sick." Thinking of his girls, he sure hoped they'd forgive him. He could get a week off after this, and he'd sleep through the whole, damn thing.

Suspicious package. They were the words Ed had been hoping not to hear. He always dreaded those calls because they gave him a certain sense of helplessness. He hated sitting on his hands and too often that was what he ended up doing. Today was worse. He hated relinquishing control, and he'd have to. Even Greg would have to stand back and let Spike take lead on this one, because Spike was the only one who knew what he was doing. Greg didn't like doing that, anymore than Ed did. Bombs didn't talk, and Greg didn't trust anything he couldn't swindle.

The problem was, Spike and exhaustion went together like a good snowstorm and all-season radials. You might get to your destination but was it worth the risk and loss of control?

He raised his binoculars, trying to get any kind of eyes on the scene. The package hadn't merely been suspicious – it had advertised its menace. It had been chained down, and according to Spike that was a good thing. Any attempt to move it in its current state, the expert claimed, was liable to take out a good portion of the entire building site. That was something else that worried Ed. The events leading to Lew's death had started under similar circumstances – a single explosive device detonated at a construction site.

Needless to say, Greg had the same fears. He paced, he muttered and he fretted about the silence coming from downrange. "Anything?"

"He's just sitting there." The question was, was he frozen or merely thinking? Ten minutes ago he'd demanded radio silence, snapping at Greg that his constant chatter was becoming distracting. Since then, they'd heard heavy breathing, but little else. He made occasional moves towards the device, always stopping and pulling back. Fear, or his alien thought-processes at work? It'd help if he'd say something.

Once Babycakes had determined that between the pressure triggers, the motion triggers and the amount of explosive that the device wasn't going anywhere, and that a protective casing built around the thing would diffuse any efforts with the water cannon, Spike had announced his intentions to handle things himself.

Both Ed and Greg had mounted token protests, but they'd known it was futile. In these calls, Spike had final say. Most times they only had to worry about a subject's intent, but today, Spike's was a concern too: was he exorcising demons or taking suicidal chances? What was going through the man's mind?

Breathe. You can do this. It's a cakewalk. One step at a time. It was a cakewalk, except for the fact that whomever put this baby together was a paranoid freak. There were way too many triggers and way too much explosive for this to be anything other than the work of a psycho amateur. He hated that. Professionals had rules. They were logical, neat, even if they were clever. They were so much less likely to screw things up.

Still, theoretically, there was nothing to this. He had nice, clear views of all the wires; he knew which ones led nowhere, and which ones didn't. It was simply a matter of a couple of snips and they could all go home and start bitching about him again.

He reached forward, pausing as he caught a slight tremor. He pulled his hand back, took a couple of deep breaths and tried again. He could do this. He had to do this, so why wouldn't his hands just stop shaking? Part of his brain gave him a million reasons, none of which were good enough. It didn't matter that it was cold, or he was tired – what kind of an answer was that to put on the paperwork? Ed could do his job while cold and tired, the boss could do his, so there was no damn excuse for this. He just needed to settle down and focus. He tried not to laugh hysterically. How many times had he heard that one?

"Spike? How're you doing, buddy?" Greg pestering him again wasn't going to help. Spike reached up and turned his headset off. He'd turn it on again if he had anything important to tell them. In the back of his mind, he heard Lew's voice telling him he was being stupid. That everything was going to be okay, but he'd said that before, hadn't he? Look how well that one had turned out, and because everybody had to ignore him. Hadn't he said 'don't do it'? But no. He had to let himself be talked into letting his friend, his unprepared, inexperienced friend, charge in blindly. This time, he wasn't going to get talked into anything. He was going to do this, and then they were going to all go home, and if anybody died trying, he'd be the only one. As simple as that.

He just needed to get his stupid hand under control. Goddamnit, why was it so hard?

"I'm going down there." Ed knew it violated protocol, but he didn't see any other choice. Whatever was wrong with Spike couldn't be helped from here. Besides, turning his radio off was a violation of protocol, too.

"It's too risky." Tactfully, Greg didn't remind him that it had been Ed arguing caution the last time.

"He's right. Anyway, I should go." Leah stepped up – clearly she'd never been taught not to eavesdrop. "It's my…"

Ed cut her off. "He won't let you. He doesn't want another Lew." That was the one aspect of Spike's refusal to cooperate with her that she refused to pick up on. Spike wouldn't let her help for the same reason a parent didn't let his child play with a gun – it was the best way to keep everyone safe.

"And you?" Greg just had to find flaws in a plan. It was the guy's way. Unless it was his plan, designed and approved by Greg ParkerTM, then it wasn't good enough.

Ed started off, calling back over his shoulder. "No, but he can't tell me where to go, either." It was the advantage to being Team Leader. He didn't have to listen, even if Spike did try to inform him what he could do with himself. Logically, he wasn't the best choice of person to go, but he was the only one who could. Greg was too valuable to lose. None of the others had the authority to boss Spike around. It was simple as that.

"Be careful." Wordy called out what the others had to be thinking. Ed nodded, not really hearing it. Careful would be not doing this. On the other hand, this wasn't quite the same as Spike's futile scramblings to save Lew. If it came down to it, he could grab Spike's collar and drag him out of there.

Spike didn't even move, though he had to hear the crunch of boots on gravel as Ed approached. "You shouldn't be here. Go back to the perimeter."

"I'm not going to do that." Now that he was closer, Ed could see the problem. It was just the smallest of tremors, but for Spike his hand might well have been waving violently of its own accord.

"Ed," Spike kept his eyes fixed on the bomb, as if by force of will he could make Ed disappear. "It's Rule One. Never more than one man downrange." He said it a little too emphatically, perhaps remembering the last time he cited it.

"First rules are always the least important ones," Ed lied. "That way you can forget them by the time you're finished hearing all the others."

"I can't concentrate if you're here." Spike took a couple of what he probably thought were deep breaths. They were, if you counted hyperventilation as breathing. "I need to concentrate if I'm going to do this right." He reached out with his cutters, pausing before he even got close. "Ed…"

Ed closed his hand around Spike's. The man's fingers were like ice and Ed didn't think it had anything to do with the weather. He reached out with his other hand and slowly took the cutters away. "Talk me through it. I'll be your hands."

"I can't…" Tears soaked the two words, choking off the rest of the sentence.

"You're just tired." He laid a hand on Spike's shoulder. There was no 'just' about it, of course. Everyone else had managed to grab at least some sleep, but Ed knew the same couldn't be said for Spike. "Next time you'll listen to me and the boss when we're both telling you the same thing." As he spoke, he switched Spike's radio back on.

Slowly, Spike nodded. He sank towards the ground as though surrendering to unconsciousness right there. If he weren't beyond exhaustion, he'd have put up more of a fight. He probably would have with someone else, someone he could protect. But if Rule One of Diffusion stated that only one man could be here, it failed to account for the most vital rule of Team One: never tell Team Leader what to do, unless your name is Greg. Still, if he had any confidence left in himself, he might have tried.

"Okay, so, what first?" Ed felt a sudden edginess, a sense he wasn't used to. So, this was what it was like to live in Spike's world. For Ed, death was something handed out, delivered from a distance. Here it came to you, wrapped in a neat little package. There were no second chances. Small wonder bomb-guys had their reputations. You had to be a little different to go in alone, knowing that you might not come out, again.

"Top right hand corner, you'll see a pair of black wires. Don't touch those, yet, we'll leave them for last."

Ed nodded. He hadn't moved, just in case it was a warning. This was nerve-wracking, more than he'd actually expected it to be. Yet this is what Spike did, or had to be ready to do, all the time. Having to rely not only on himself, but the competency of his opponent and a hell of a lot of luck. He'd told Sam that you couldn't win them all, but Spike had to.

"And don't touch anything exposed. Any uncompleted circuits, we want to leave them that way."


"Keep in mind that this thing is a mess of redundancies on top of redundancies – it's going to take a while, so thank God he didn't set a timer." Spike shook his head, as though trying to shake loose something in it. "My guess is he was hoping for it to be set off by the motion triggers – vibrations from heavy equipment would do it. I have never seen this much overkill, in my life."

"You got that, Boss?" Ed tried not to think too much on the word 'overkill'.

"So, what? We've got somebody who doesn't like vibrations?"

"Or noise," Spike theorised. "You got cranes and machines running through here, they make a lot of noise. And there's no other way to set this off, meaning he's either stupid, or…"

"…it's a way of denying responsibility," Greg filled in. "If everybody's nice and quiet, and there are no vibrations, nothing happens. They don't…"

"… and it's one big boom, before it's nice and quiet again for a long while." Sometimes it was spooky the way Greg and Spike could complete each others sentences. It was almost as bad as Spike and Lew. It wasn't Greg – he could get into anybody's head – but the way Spike matched him, thought for thought. Never was it more evident than when Spike was the one on research duties and by the time Greg finished asking for something Spike was already halfway to finding the answer.

"Okay, if that's the case, then it's probably someone nearby, someone most likely to be affected by the noise and vibration of something like this." Greg's voice sounded a little far away to Ed. It was the focus, tuning everything down to the essentials. He needed to worry about what Spike said, not what happened in the background. Just like normally, he only listened to the Boss, mostly picking out key words and phrases.

"Have Jules look for shift-workers." Spike sounded distracted, which was a good thing. Some people moved their lips when they read, Spike moved his when he thought. If he was thinking about this, it meant he wasn't thinking about other things. "Somebody for whom the noise would be more than just an annoyance." He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. "We're talking about somebody seriously pissed off, here."

"Copy that," Jules answered. Pretending to relay through Greg was, after all, just a formality. He was still, nominally, the boss, even if he didn't know what he was doing, here.

"When she's got some possibilities, Wordy, you, Leah and Sam can check 'em out." Ed, on the other hand, didn't need to pretend. Tactical was his department. It was the difference between being the sergeant and being the leader: Greg talked, Ed did. He barely heard Wordy's 'copy'. He didn't need to. The man knew to do what he was told.

He turned his attention solely to the job in front of him. Absentee subjects were the hardest to catch, giving them another good reason to shut this thing down with the least amount of damage. The more intact they could keep it, the better chance they had of identifying who built it. It was almost as good a reason as not splattering two guys over a five-hundred meter radius. It took a while, Spike detailing each instruction, Ed asking him to explain twice and three times, to be sure he had it right. Even so, with each step he felt a rush of panic that everything could end right then. If he misunderstood, if he slipped… "You can keep this job, okay? I'll stand back and shoot people for you, but this… you've got to be insane."

"It took you until this to figure that out?" Spike twisted his fingers around each other, as though he were itching to take back over, but too polite to ask for his cutters back. Ed knew that wasn't true. Spike never let manners stand in the way of anything.

"Yeah, well, let this be a lesson to you." Ed closed the cutters over the last wire, breathing a sigh of relief. He closed his eyes for a second, marvelling in the simple fact that he wasn't dead. "Is that it?"

"Aside from containing for transport, that's it. The lab can take it apart – maybe they can tell us something." Puzzle solved and crisis averted, it was clear Spike's interest was waning. Forensics wasn't on his list of interests, and he was too tired to pretend it was.

Ed stood up, extending a hand for Spike to grab hold of. He didn't trust the man to be able to get to his feet, alone. "We're here for you. Crazy or not." He paused just a moment, to let it sink in. "Though, to be honest, we liked it better when you were."

Spike laughed, but there was still a sense of bitterness about it. "Sorry to go sane and responsible. Everybody always told me it would be better."

Ed threw his arm around Spike's shoulder, partly in a gesture of brotherhood, but mostly a way of keeping the teetering man upright. "Well, everybody was wrong." They started back towards the team, Spike only stumbling a few times. Ed felt a little like falling over, himself – maybe they were supporting each other. But that was the point, wasn't it? That was the difference between a team and just a bunch of guys working together. Teams hung together. They were stronger for the give and take, for the challenges. "If they want to argue about it, they can go through me."

"Ah, you're not that tough." Spike's boots left trails in the dirt; he wasn't bothering to lift them all the way off the ground. "I could take you."

"In your dreams." Ed shifted his grip into a headlock and rubbed the knuckles of his free hand hard into Spike's head.

Spike's hand came up in the classic counter-move, forcing Ed's chin away and his body along with it, loosening the grip. Ed let go before the move could be completed, leaving Spike to stagger on his own.

"Hey, you two," Greg called out. "Keep that up and I'm sending you to separate corners."

"He started it." Ed pointed his finger at Spike.

"Yeah, right. As if." Spike threw a mock punch at Ed's shoulder. It wouldn't have dented a marshmallow. "You started it. All the way."

"Yeah, sure, uh-huh, okay." Greg did a lousy job of hiding a smile as he held open the back door to one of the SUVs. "Come on, let's pack it up, shall we?"

Spike dutifully climbed into the backseat while Ed traipsed around to claim shotgun. That was another advantage to seniority – never actually having to call it. The others could pack up. After all, all they'd done for the past thirty minutes was stand around and watch.

They were halfway home before he noticed, but he waited until they'd pulled into the garage before nudging Greg. Behind them, Spike hadn't bothered to buckle up; instead, he'd curled up on the seat, dead to the world.

Ed put his finger to his lips and Greg nodded. They got quietly out of the vehicle and closed the doors behind them as silently as they dared. Spike was liable to catch them if they tried to outright sneak.

"Finally." Greg waited until they were several steps away before daring to breathe the single word. "Everything okay?"

Ed considered for a moment, before nodding. "Yeah. We just need a little patience, that's all."

"Hell of a chance you took, today." The look Greg gave wasn't disapproving, it was more his standard 'I'm testing you' look.

"Yeah, well, it was better than leaving him alone." That, Ed suddenly realised, was the whole problem. They'd been leaving Spike alone, giving him time to get over it and forgetting that Spike didn't work that way. "We all need a little help sometimes."

"Yes, we do." Greg looked as though some great wisdom had been imparted, though it was hard to say whom he thought it had been imparted to. Ed had an uneasy sense he'd just walked into a trap.

"And when I do, I'll let you know." Ed patted his friend on the shoulder before walking away, quickly. He needed a shower and a chance to fall face-down onto something, himself.

"Yeah, yeah." Greg waved him off, dismissively.

Ed continued on towards the lure of hot water. Tomorrow he'd get on Spike's case, remind the man that his teammates really did care. For now, he'd let sleeping dogs lie.