AN: Thank you all for reading!

This case/episode, that moment in the arena Ed finally works through, is one that always bothered me for reasons I found hard to articulate. We got several shots of Spike's head through Ed's crosshairs, a harrowing image judging by Ed's expression alone, and then it was never discussed again. Thus, this piece was born!

'A man remains defended,
So where do I begin
To overtake the ending—
All my bones they are for you.'

"Waiting" ~ Royal Wood

They'd left the garage door half lifted. Backlight from the street cast an approaching man in shadows but Greg knew who it was, knew that figure better than his own name.

"Can't get enough of me at work?" the man called.

Greg heard the undertow of unease in that quip and Ed did too, judging by how he stood from the rolling stool next to his car in a knee jerk motion.

"We're back here," Ed didn't raise his voice but Spike followed it anyway. He'd always had the best ears of them all. "Watch your head."

Spike did, ducking under the garage door. Like Ed, he was still in his SRU sweater, sans vest of course. They'd barely gotten off shift an hour ago.

If Spike was surprised to find himself standing in Ed's garage and both older men waiting for him, he didn't show it. Not as much as Greg expected.

While most members of Team One liked to host, people never came to Ed's house, not even for team barbecues. That was Wordy's department. Sam and Jules liked to have people over for games. Spike cooked. Greg had an open door policy and Spike was over there at least twice a week.

Ed? Not so much.

"Do I get to find out what your cryptic text was about now?" Spike asked Ed.

Greg whapped his friend on the arm, tone scolding. "Ed, what did you tell him? We talked about not scaring him!"

Ed held up his hands. "I just said to meet me in my garage."

Greg groaned. "You're the worst."

"Oh yeah? Whose idea was this in the first place?"

"You asked for my opinion!"

"You said I had to do it."

"And I stand by that, Eddie."

"Of course you do. Bossy as usual, I see. Glad to know the Academy hasn't dulled your touch."

"What touch? I have a cane now and I know how to use it."

Spike's eyes flipped between them with growing interest and speed, like a tennis match. He said nothing but Greg saw the questions burning behind his closed lips.

"Have a seat." Ed pointed to the stool. It was rolled up in front of a closed metal cabinet.

Spike did so—albeit gingerly. His long legs 'walked' himself closer. "Is this the part where you shank me?"

"Just go with it." Ed mussed his hair. "Cheeky brat."

It didn't escape Greg's attention that both men froze a little when Ed touched his head.

Oh, Eddie.

The whole story had come out in the bathroom on Saturday. All the sordid nuances Ed had been keeping inside for years.

Time they saw some light.

As if cued to Greg's internal thought, Ed clasped Spike's shoulder with barely concealed anxiety.

He bent down to catch Spike's eye. "I want you to know that I never meant to hurt you with any of this. What I'm about to show you, it…it's not…"

Greg stepped up for the whole reason he'd been invited for this. He placed a hand on his friend's, the one on top of Spike.

"Eddie. It's okay. You got him and nothing happened."

Ed composed himself and nodded. "Spike, you have the right to understand. That's all this is, me trying to be honest here."

Spike's lips thinned, eyes wider than they should be, and though Ed's grave-side behaviour clearly spooked him, he nodded back.

Greg knew Spike couldn't understand the momentous occasion this was, the simple act of Ed stepping up to slide a dainty key into the cabinet lock, but it made his eyes sting nonetheless. Not even Greg had seen it. Only Sophie had been privileged enough to have Ed show her.

All three held their breaths.

Ed swung open the double doors.

It was…messier than Greg expected. That was his first impression and it didn't fade when his eyes did the full tour.

Pages fluttered on every available inch of space, a countless and dizzying miasma of newspaper pages, handwritten notes, accolades, police reports—illegally photocopied—and tacked up photos.

Few of the people in those photos were living.

Spike didn't move, not in the first minute, not the second. Only his eyes roamed around. For nearly five minutes, he just drank it all in, not looking at Greg or Ed on either side. Bracketed by their bodies, Spike was a statue, a silent witness to the monument of Ed's guilt.

He'd been building it for over a decade.

Then Spike rocked back a hair. "But, Ed, I'm not in any of these photos."

A massive rush of pride zinged through Greg. That's my boy. Smart as hell.

There was a teeny-tiny newspaper clipping taped behind a large sheaf of photos on the left hand door. Ed peeled it off and handed it to Spike.

Spike didn't read the whole thing, didn't need to.

At last, emotion appeared on Spike's face. He looked up at Ed with his large eyes. "This case was over three years ago. The one with the discharged soldier trying to save the arena, right? White phosphorous nearly killed Sam."

Ed's chin quivered for a beat. He stilled it immediately, but Spike let out an awed breath.

"Ed." Spike visibly reined his shock in. Not fast enough, yet with enough control to impress Greg. "Nobody died that day but the soldier. You saved Sam's life. You saved my life, stupid as I was to get overpowered like that."

Ed couldn't hold back any longer. Something about the serenity of this moment, them alone on a quiet street, sun setting, Spike safely below them in one piece, it broke Ed. A clipped sob escaped before he could stop it.

Spike's mouth formed an 'o' of incredulity. "Ed—"

"I didn't have the shot." Ed shook his head, lips a trembling mess. "Your head was all I could see in the scope. For almost three minutes, I stared at your forced-back scalp through the crosshairs. He knew exactly where I was perched and made sure you were between me and him. A human shield."

Ed choked on another aborted sound. "That's why I took the shot the instant he shoved you. I thought he'd raised his gun at you, not Sam. I couldn't see where you'd gone. I couldn't see you and…I…"

Ed didn't weep exactly, not like he had in Greg's bathroom.

Somehow, the twitching of his chin and the wail-like sounds of his exhales were worse. Spike could only stare at him. The newspaper clipping of the arena shooting fluttered in his grip.

"And I keep dreaming about it."

Spike's face fell. "You keep dreaming that you shot me instead."

"I know. I know it didn't happen. But I close my eyes and your head is all I see. In pieces."

Ed hid his face behind shaking hands. They were immutable, hushed, for a stretch.

Outside, the first snowfall of the season descended in faint, fat flakes. Melting as soon as they hit the ground, the windless night allowed joined flakes to create brief gossamer shapes on the pavement.

Spike's eyes hardened.

He stood from his chair and startled Ed. Then he swiveled around, searching for something in the garage.

Greg, by the intuition of fathers and brothers-in-arms everywhere, knew exactly what he was doing. He pointed to the far wall. "There's one over there, Spike."

Spike bully marched to the stainless steel garbage drum and whipped out the plastic bag. Then he carried it out to the front driveway.

Ed followed in mute wonder. Mystified. He didn't ask what Spike was doing, just joined Greg in standing around the can like they were suddenly homeless.

Spike glanced one more time at the newspaper clipping and then threw it in. He produced a box of matches from his pocket.

Ed's eyes widened but still he didn't protest.

Spike struck a match and tossed that in too. Wordless, the trio watched it burn to nothing.

Then Spike looked to Ed. One brow lifted slowly in question.

Ed stared at the line of smoke, then to flakes settling in Spike's hair. In his long lashes like icing sugar.

He nodded once. "Okay, Spike."

Spike wasted no time. He darted to the cabinet, ripped down every last sheaf of papers and photos with his fingernails until they turned red and his mouth was a savage, jagged line. He left up only the awards and accolades.

He dumped every last item in the can. The cabinet, and Ed's bulletin board of failure, was empty.

In a rare fit of righteous anger, Spike lit not one but three matches. A sharp crackle preceded a much bigger fire that roared to life in bluish yellow flames. They whooshed upwards with the stale smell of laminated photo paper burning. Of yellowed newspaper dissolving to ash.

Across the flames, Spike glared at Ed. "Family is about not keeping score. No record of our mistakes except what's needed to learn. You know who taught me that? You did, all of you."

Ed's chin started up again.

"And what's more?" Spike barked a wet laugh. "None of these are failures. They're proof that you'll keep me safe at this job, that I trust you just as much as Greg."

And there it was. The trigger that had started Ed's PTSD with this particular memory.

Tender-hearted Spike got to the root of things much faster than even Greg sometimes. Their boy, their young and puppy-eyed kid with more wisdom in his big heart than all of them combined when the moment was right.

"You're Ed, my boss, and I trust you with my life."

Ed shook his head. "I don't know if you should."

"Tough." Spike's eyes flashed. "Because it's not your choice to make. This transition has been hard on all of us, but you're not 'lesser.' You're not filling Greg's shoes. You're protecting us in your own way."

Greg agreed with this sentiment by looping an arm around Ed's heaving shoulders.

Spike pointed to the can. "No more."

Ed reached around to pull Spike in for a rough embrace. His hand landed in Spike's hair. Greg knew he was feeling the younger man's pulse, the unmarred, healthy curve of his scalp. The lack of blood.

"No more," Ed breathed.

Around them, darkness settled, a warm, cozy twilight. It highlighted snowflakes winking by dying firelight.

Both men were painted in hazy lines and Spike's joyful smile by sharp contrast. Greg looked up at the sky. A snowflake melted on his nose.

"I'm sorry," Ed whispered. "So sorry for how I've treated you, out of fear. I'm just so tired and sorry. So sorry…"

Spike twined his arms around Ed's neck and Greg's gut went gooey. How he loved these people.

He took a mental photograph of the moment, trying to memorize the dimples in Spike's cheeks and the way Ed tilted his head into the embrace, his nose in Spike's hair, shielding hand cupping the back of their boy's head.

"There's nothing to forgive, Ed. Nothing at all."

Ed finally stopped shaking.

They were all different, this hodgepodge of people:

Wordy mussed with his hair. Sam noogied it if he managed to catch Spike in a good head lock. Jules tucked it in place. Leah flicked his temple to get his attention. Greg eyed the scar on his head with sadness and a protective fire.

Ed caressed it.

Not often, after that day in the garage, but sometimes. When the day had ended and they'd just finished a long call…

Spike didn't look up when the calloused hand picked through matted strands of his hair.

He did—maybe, just maybe—nuzzle into it an infinitesimal amount.

If Spike really admitted it to himself, a part of his heart had never grown up, forever a scared child, until he met these people. And though that corner was small, they'd raised it.

They'd taught him how to love unconditionally, what it meant to have someone's back, how you could trust people with the little things, not just your physical well being.

That you didn't have to pay dues to be loved by your family. That sometimes people loved you because they could and longed to.

By God, they'd raised it.

A hidden grin appeared in the pockets of his mouth.

"Winnie coming to the game at Sam's tonight?"

Spike blinked. "Are you?"

Ed made a thinking sound, hand still unashamedly smoothing across Spike's head. "Actually, yeah. Sophie's coming too."

"Full house, then," said Spike. "So long as Sadie doesn't tear the Christmas tree down."

Ed laughed, nudging Spike's shoulder with his hip. "She's only got a few days to go before she can tear open all the shiny presents underneath."

Spike grinned full on now, zipping up his coat. "You ready?"

Ed heard what he was really asking, eyes fond.

He finally removed his hand—

"Better every day."


Written in 2019.