AN: This is set a few months after Crosshairs, but it's not necessary to read any of the others in this series first to understand this one.


"You ready to get bested at the fiercest billiard game of your life? Ed?" Greg still didn't lose his smile while glancing around for Ed. They'd agreed to meet at the SRU entrance to head out and try that new lunch spot. "Eddie?"

Limping further into the building, Greg was surprised to see the barn so empty.

Winnie stood behind her desk, utterly motionless. She seemed to be straining forward.

Greg squinted at her. "Winnie?"

"Oh!" She jumped. A faint blush warmed her cheeks. "Hey, sarg!"

In the usual ritual, even after a little over a year of this, Winnie came around the desk to give Greg a hug. He was a regular in the building, despite the fact he technically didn't work here anymore.

Greg got upset phone calls if he stayed away from the station for longer than a week. It was…nice. More touching than he cared to admit.

Winnie held on to Greg for a beat longer than he expected, and she was tighter than a repel line in his arms. Greg's worry amped up. "What's going on?"

Winnie pulled away, again glancing down the hall. "I don't know. Team One's shift hasn't even started yet but Holleran's furious."

Sure enough, Greg could hear two hot voices trying to whisper and failing.

"Where's Eddie?"

Winnie's lips thinned into a bowstring. "Maybe you should…"

"Yeah." Greg patted her arm. "I'm on it."

Finally, she sat down but Greg felt her eyes follow his back until he turned the corner.

Greg was still riding the idyllic fog from taking this day off, cushy and lax. So what he was looking at didn't compute for a moment.

Commander Holleran—flat palm on Ed's chest.

He was holding him back.

From his office's closed, locked door—locked from the outside. A temporary holding cell.

Ed looked boggled more than anything. "For the last time, there's been a mistake. No way."

"Ed, come on." Holleran's tone was calmer, level, but exponentially more urgent. "What else can we infer from this? Neither had injuries when they left last night. Now they both come in with blood on their faces?"

Greg realized he'd stopped moving out of sheer surprise. He shook himself.

"Gentlemen?"

Ed whirled and his whole posture deflated when he saw Greg. "Thank God. Someone who can talk sense."

Something squirmed inside Greg's stomach. "I'm not a team leader anymore. This is technically none of my busin—"

"Like hell it is," Ed snapped. Anger appeared on his face for the first time. "Greg has more right here than any of us. Holleran, before we go ruining two good officers' records here, can we at least hear their side of the story? I'm their superior—"

Holleran's hand tightened on Ed. "Not Braddock's, you're not."

"Doesn't matter," Ed insisted. "Let me talk to them."

"No. This is a disciplinary issue."

Greg had stayed quiet, assessing the situation, but nothing made sense. He held up a hand. "Whoa, whoa. Someone's injured and we're just standing here?"

"Superficial," said Holleran. He let go of Ed with a dubious look.

Ed, likewise, eyed him shrewdly. "You're sure?"

Holleran hesitated. "Sam said he checked them both out. Did a basic checklist. No concussion or fractures."

Greg's worry mounted. He reached around Ed and put a hand on the door. "Holleran, I'm asking this as a friend: can we please just talk to them, off record? I don't even know who's in trouble here or why."

Holleran huffed but Greg could see his resolve crumbling. Same story, really, whenever Greg asked for something like this. Holleran reached into his pocket and removed the door key. Ed practically vibrated at Greg's side.

Ed hasn't seen them.

And really, that should have been Greg's first clue. That they'd snuck in to work without anyone noticing.

Greg's first sight of them, when Ed finally bullied his way in, was not what he expected—

Sam sat in a chair closest to the door. It was pulled up flush, arm rests almost overlapping, next to Spike's.

They'd been arguing, hushed, but pulled apart when they saw Ed. Spike's face was stony. Sam threw a pleading look his way, only for Spike to subtly shake his head.

A brilliant splotch of purple and yellow ringed Sam's left cheekbone. The grainy flecks of red ringing his nostrils spoke of a nosebleed long stopped.

Spike only had an oval bruise on his lower jaw but his stiff posture attracted Ed's eyes in an instant. Spike kept his back carefully away from the chair, while Sam rested fully.

They were both in plain clothes, though the collar of Spike's shirt was ripped.

Greg's chest did a funny flip flop.

He sat on the edge of Holleran's desk, while Ed chose to stand beside him, arms crossed. Holleran hovered somewhere in the background. He, wisely, stayed quiet.

Sam's eyes bugged. "They called you in just for this, boss?"

Greg couldn't help but smile. "I was in the neighbourhood."

"Fighting is prohibited at the SRU," said Ed. "You know that, right?"

Greg asked a more pressing question. "Are either of you hurt beyond what I can see?"

Spike shook his head without a word.

"We're…fine." Sam answered for them. He stole another flash of a look at Spike. "And we weren't fighting with cops. Or each other."

Sam scoffed at that one, offended by the very thought.

Spike kept his eyes up, respectful, but very strategically away from direct eye contact. Greg clenched a fist, feeling his wedding ring bite the skin.

Ed, too, was rigid beside him. The expression on Spike's face looked too much like a few months ago, the bombing. The hospital. An unresponsive Spike with a gun in his lap.

It rattled something in Greg's lungs and he cleared his throat. "Spike? Wanna weigh in here?"

"If you don't," Holleran added, "I'll have to suspend you both."

That got Spike and Sam's gasping attention.

And Greg's. He fought a growl. "Now, sir—"

"No." Holleran glared at him, the kids, the room in general. "Fighting is frowned upon among cops, even if it's just a bar fight. You know what, especially if it's a bar fight. We're better than that. If I have to make an example of you, then so be it."

"A bar fight," Spike blurted suddenly. Everyone turned back to him. "How did you know, sir?"

His tone echoed oddly in the small office but Holleran just sighed. "You're both young. You got off late last night and are in early this morning. It's the only place it could have happened."

Sam kept his silence this time.

Ed's eyes narrowed. "Spike, you're not really a strike first, talk later type of guy. You've never been in a bar fight in your life. So don't lie to me."

"I'm…I just…"

"Spike." Ed's volume climbed. "It's momentary embarrassment or suspension."

"You can't—"

"Talk. Now."

He'd been leaning forward during this ultimatum, closer into Spike's space.

Nobody was sure what happened, what invisible line Ed crossed, but in the next second Greg's world rocked:

Sam threw an arm in front of Spike. Right across his chest. It was firm and angry and it matched Sam's hard glower at Ed.

It was pure instinct.

In that one move, the whole ball game changed. This was no longer about bar fights or schoolboy punches.

Holleran audibly stopped breathing.

The room seemed to spin a one-eighty and Ed immediately, in obedience to a similar instinct, took one look at Spike's blanched face and stepped back. He even dragged over a chair and sat down, so he wasn't towering over them.

It was the very first time, in Greg's memory, he had ever seen Spike afraid of Ed. Ed, who'd always represented safety and home for the tech.

Sam retracted his protective arm but it didn't matter. Greg knew he'd be seeing that shocking image behind his eyelids for weeks.

Silence hung over the room.

Like Ed, Sam was vibrating with a certain energy. Imperative. Demanding. He schooled it into a squirm, though they were all too well trained to be fooled.

"So not a bar fight," said Ed softly.

Spike uncoiled a bit. Enough for everyone to breathe properly again.

Greg didn't dare lean forward after that scene but he ducked his head a tad to catch Spike's eyes. Unsuccessful. "Spike? Who hit you?"

"I'm fine."

He kept his voice quiet. "That's not what I asked."

"I don't live in the best neighbourhood." Spike's voice was thin. "Sam and I stopped some…unsavoury people on our way to work this morning."

Greg exchanged a surprised look with Ed.

"And you didn't call it in?" asked Holleran.

Spike glanced at Sam, who shuffled to the edge of his seat. This put Sam closer to Greg than Spike. First line of defense.

Greg went from floored to gobsmacked. Neither of the younger men were acting like themselves.

"They got away," said Sam, firm.

For the first time since Greg walked into the room, this rang as the complete truth.

Ed seemed to feel it too, nodding. "Okay. We trust you."

"We do?" Holleran rounded his desk. Right on cue, Sam tensed. "Braddock, someone nearly fractured your sinusoidal bone. And I should pretend like nothing happened?"

"We're fit for duty," said Spike, still the quietest voice in the room. "It was just a scuffle."

Sam opened his mouth with a stormy brow like he wanted to argue that, but Holleran beat him to it.

"I don't care about the scuffle, Scarlatti—I care that this may encourage fighting or vigilantism."

"I'll vouch for them." Ed stood. "Put them on a week's probation watch with me, off the books."

Spike frowned but Sam wilted with relief.

"They're upstanding officers, Holleran," Greg added. "Can't they get a warning for this first infraction?"

Holleran sighed. "I've missed your peace corps attitude, Parker."

Greg flicked him a two-fingered salute and Ed grinned.

Holleran waved him off. "Dismissed with a warning, all of you. Get out of my office."

They did, but not before Ed bent down and—oh so slowly—placed a hand on Spike's forearm. One finger at a time. An apology and reassurance all in one. The motion was carefully drawn out to let Spike pull away if he wanted to.

Sam halted in the doorway, watching but not intervening.

It was the fretting in Ed's face, vulnerable, that smoothed some of the lines around Sam's mouth. He looked like himself again.

Spike, however, didn't relax until almost ten whole seconds of Ed's hand arriving on his arm.