A/N: Thank you so much for continuing to read this story! Thank you especially to everyone who have left reviews since I posted the last chapter: max2013, Highflyer, Candylou, EvergreenDreamweaver, Caranath, Cherylann Rivers, BMSH, Ritu, and Robot Wolf 26Z!

Chapter XXXI

A New Chapter

December 8 – River Heights

"I am definitely ready to head home," Nancy declared as she put the last of her belongings back in the suitcase that Ned had brought them in.

"And I'm ready to have you home," Ned replied. "So is Marian, even if she can't say so yet."

Nancy smiled fondly at the thought of her daughter. She had been surprised and more than a little pained at how much Marian had grown when she had finally been allowed to see her after ten days in the hospital. If she had felt before that she had been missing out on important milestones in her daughter's growth, she was feeling it even more sharply now.

She didn't say so just now, though. Instead, she merely said, "We'll have to do something for your parents to thank them for taking care of her so much in the last two weeks. We would have never gotten through this without them."

"They didn't mind," Ned assured her. "But you're right. We ought to think of something. Oh, the arrest was in the paper this morning. I brought it along in case you'd want to take a look at it."

Immediately after Art Carpenter's arrest and partial confession, officers had been sent to arrest Carl McGregor. McGregor, however, must have realized that his assassination attempt on Nancy had failed and the man he had sent had been arrested, for he had already made his escape by the time the officers reached his home. It had taken nearly a week, but finally he had been discovered hiding out in Chicago.

In the meantime, though, Carpenter had broken down and admitted that his initial story about McGregor using threats to get the nurse to work for him hadn't been strictly true. McGregor was behind it, he insisted, but he had used money rather than threats to convince him.

Now that McGregor had been arrested, the newspaper reported the entire story of what had happened and why McGregor had done it. He had discovered Walt Carril's ties to "Black Rose", which, of course, were really ties to the criminal organization that the Hardys had uncovered. Having heard vaguely about Black Rose, McGregor had decided to use whatever means he could to rid himself of Carril, finally deciding to trump up charges of stealing against him. That, however, had backfired when Carril, who was a hothead, threatened revenge.

McGregor expected the revenge to be personal, rather than being against the entire business, as Carril had never actually said anything about retaliating against the store. A personal stroke against him was the last thing McGregor needed, since even if the attempt wasn't successful, the investigation that would no doubt follow would reveal that McGregor had been embezzling from the store, as well as having a few illegal sidelines, including stealing customers' credit card information. The whole thing needed to be avoided altogether.

The best way to do that would be to get Carril safely arrested before he could try anything. With so much at stake, McGregor's idea was to plant a bomb in the warehouse and blame it on Carril. He had been careful to make sure no one was in the warehouse when the bomb was scheduled to go off, but when Nancy and Ned, whom he had called in thinking they would assume Carril was behind the explosion, insisted on searching the warehouse, that had nearly wrecked everything. McGregor couldn't insist they stay out of there without betraying the fact that he knew there was a bomb about to go off.

With Nancy seriously injured in the explosion, the stakes had been even higher than ever, but McGregor had thought he was safe. Then Nancy's interview had made him fear that she had figured it out, and in a snap decision born of complete desperation, McGregor had hired Carpenter, whom he knew from past experience to be unscrupulous, to keep Nancy silent.

Chief McGinnis had already told Nancy about this late yesterday, after McGregor had confessed, so there was little in the newspaper report that she didn't know. She did have to roll her eyes when she how much the newspaper had exaggerated the media's part in capturing the culprit, even though the media had essentially only been used by Nancy.

"Ugh," she groaned. "What is the matter with the news media in this town?"

Ned gave a crooked grin. "They're just always trying to make themselves look good, especially if they can make you look bad at the same time."

"I guess you're right," Nancy agreed. "Although they do fail at that, especially the part about making themselves look good. Well, anyway, let's go home."

Several hours later, Nancy was sitting on the loveseat in the little alcove off the living room, holding Marian as if she'd never let her go, which, in fact, she barely had since she had gotten home. She could hear Ned in the kitchen, where he was supposed to be making dinner, although it sounded more like he was rattling every pot, pan, and spoon they owned.

"Are you sure you don't need any help?" Nancy called.

"No, I'm fine," Ned called back promptly. "You just relax."

"You know," Nancy went on, "Hannah and your mom sent us enough food to last until next Christmas. You really don't need to cook anything from scratch."

Ned, however, was determined, and so Nancy didn't push it any further. It was over an hour later that Ned finally came into the living room and flopped down on the loveseat next to Nancy.

"Whew!" he exclaimed. "I think I'll stick with hamburgers next time I decide to make dinner. But it's finally in the oven. It has to bake for another forty-five minutes. I hope you're not starving."

"No," Nancy assured him with a smile. "Actually, I have to confess. I got into the stock of chocolates a little while ago."

Ned grinned. "There are worse things you could confess to."

"But I've done nothing but sit around for two weeks," Nancy reminded him. "I'm going to need to get that gym membership and actually use it this year."

"Nancy," Ned said, abruptly changing the subject, "there's something that's been on my mind for a quite a while now. I didn't want to bring it up while there was so much other stuff for you to think about, but the more I think about it, the more I like it."

"What is it?" Nancy asked.

"You remember Coach Marshall?" Ned replied.

"For as much as you've talked about him, I'm not very likely to forget," Nancy said teasingly.

"He called the other day with a proposition for me."

"To go back to Emerson and play football?" Nancy teased him again.

Ned chuckled. "Not likely. Actually, he's going to retire in about five years, and the college is getting all excited because he's the best coach they've ever had and they don't know how they're going to replace him when the time comes. Of course, he didn't say that in so many words, but knowing him and knowing what he's done for the team and what the college thinks of him, it's not too hard to read between the lines. Anyway, they want to hire an assistant coach to work with him for the rest of the time he's going to be there and learn as much as he can from him and possibly take over as head coach in a few years."

"And they're offering it to you?" Nancy asked.

Ned nodded excitedly. "Since Emerson's such a small college, it doesn't pay as well as working for a bigger college would, or as much as detective work does. But it's only part of the year, so I could still do detective work the rest of the time. It would also mean moving to Emerson, and I don't know…"

"If that's what you want to do," Nancy interrupted, "then we'll do it. Being a detective is my dream. It's about time you get the chance for yours. We'll be fine as far as money is concerned. As for moving, Emerson isn't very far away, and maybe their reporters aren't as obnoxious as the ones in River Heights."

"Just like that?" Ned asked. "You don't even need time to think about?"

"Maybe a little time to get used to it," Nancy replied, "but you said you've thought about it, and it it's what you want, then it's what I want, too."

"Thanks, Nancy." Ned put his arm around her and pulled her and Marian closer to him. "I love you."


December 8 – Rome

"Do you need anything else, Joe?" Callie asked.

Joe was on the couch in Frank and Callie's flat, his wounded leg propped up on a mound of pillows. His bruises had pretty well healed by now and there had been no complications from his near drowning, but his leg still hurt terribly and he had several broken ribs from the CPR. Frank and Callie, of course, had taken him in until he was well enough to go home.

"No, I'll be fine," Joe assured her. "You'd better get back to school, though. No sense missing any more classes."

Callie had only missed a week of classes through the whole ordeal, and after she had explained the circumstances to her professors, they had agreed not to penalize her for the missed class work. It did mean that she would have to go into her finals with little preparation, but she decided not to stress about it. She was confident that she could at least pass her classes and finish her degree, and that was the main thing she was concerned with.

"Okay," she said. "Frank should be back pretty soon, so if you need anything, wait for him. Remember, you've still got another day that you're supposed to be on complete bedrest, and moving you out here to the living room was already a concession. Don't push things by trying to walk around or anything like that."

"Yes, ma'am," Joe teased her, throwing her a mock salute.

Callie grinned and shook her head. Then she grabbed her backpack and headed out the door. It was nice to see Joe acting more normal again. With Joe's history of PTSD, Callie and Frank had been worried that this latest incident would cause him to have a major relapse. He hadn't, though, at least, not anything like the last time. He was just quieter, more thoughtful and introspective, and didn't try as hard to be the center of attention. He would still joke around and tease, but not as much as he used to. Yet, Callie reminded herself that it was probably mostly because Joe still had a long way to go to recovery. Once he was feeling more like himself, he would no doubt start acting more like himself.

About an hour and a half later, Joe heard the door open, and he sat up so he could see past the back of the couch. Frank and George were just coming in.

"Hey," Frank said, hurrying forward, "you're not supposed to be sitting up yet."

"Oh, all right," Joe conceded, settling back down. "I don't see what difference it makes, especially if I can sit up tomorrow. Besides, I feel fine, except when I breathe."

"Well, you'd better not stop breathing, after all the work we went to to keep you breathing," George replied, sitting in a chair opposite the couch.

Joe closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, painful as it was against his injured ribs. "Thanks, George. Uh, for saving my life."

George shrugged, trying to cover up her embarrassment. "It's not a big thing. It's not like I was just going to stand around while you died."

"It's kind of a big thing to me," Joe replied.

"Do either of you want something to eat or drink?" Frank interrupted, much to George's gratitude. "Then we'll tell you what happened, Joe."

He and George had spent the last week alternately getting questioned and helping to piece everything together. Thanks to Joe's clue about Riva del Fiume, about a dozen of the human traffickers had been captured and about forty prisoners had been rescued, among them the doctor who had initially treated Joe and who was little better than a prisoner himself. A few of the underlings of the operation had been offered deals if they would tell everything they knew, which two of them accepted readily. Because of them, several other members of the organization had been arrested, and this particular ring was well on its way to being crushed.

As it turned out, the story Enrico had told Joe about Black Rose was corroborated, and that legend could finally be laid to rest. They also learned the answers to all the other questions that had come up during the investigation.

Walt Carril had been an associate of the organization and had been assigned to keep an eye, from a distance, on Nancy, who, it was feared, knew more about Black Rose than she let on. When the bomb went off at the store where Carril had been fired, he had immediately been recalled to Rome, which was the central headquarters of the operation. The higher-ups had assumed that he had been responsible for the act, which could have easily spoiled their secrecy. They had Carril murdered in retaliation without giving him the chance to tell his side of the story. An operative in New York had also sabotaged Rachel Doving's plane in hopes that this would make it look as if the guilty party did not want Ned and the others to return to River Heights, making it appear unlikely that Carril would have been behind the crime

The would-be kidnapper whom Frank had stopped in the park had recognized him and panicked. He had told Enrico, the head of his particular branch, an exaggerated story about Frank being close on their trail, and so Enrico had had a bomb planted in Frank's apartment jus to be on the safe side. However, on reconsidering, Enrico had decided that the story wasn't very likely, so he hadn't followed up when the first assassination attempt had failed.

Manuel Sciarra, the man who had kidnapped Giada, was arrested and discovered not to have any real connection to Enrico's group. He was, however, in desperate need of money and had inadvertently found out about Enrico's connection to the human traffickers. He had seen his chance for a lot of money when he had seen Giada on the street all by herself, although in between kidnapping her and trying to turn her over to Enrico, he had spent several struggling with what little conscience he had to actually go through with it and set up the meeting.

Sciarra had met Enrico through one of Enrico's other avenues of income, for he was involved in a number of other illegal schemes, including smuggling and selling drugs, which was how Angelo had encountered him. Angelo was discovered before he had a chance to part company with the others. Because he had not actually committed any crimes in Italy as far as he was discovered, he couldn't be charged with anything there. His extradition to the U.S. to answer for his crimes there was currently being worked out.

As for Frank, given the circumstances, he was assured he wouldn't have any trouble for killing Enrico and could leave the country at any time. However, he, Joe, and George were asked to return when the members of the organization were going to trial so that they could testify.

"So, now that that's all straightened out, I'm headed back to the good ol' U.S. of A," George said when she and Frank had finished the story. "My plane leaves first thing in the morning, so I've got to get packed up. I guess I'll see you guys around some time."

After she had gone, Frank let his shoulders slump a bit. Joe looked at him questioningly.

"Is something wrong?"

It took Frank a few moments to answer. "You have no idea, Joe. I always knew it was a possibility, but I could always avoid it before. I just…" He trailed off.

Joe understood. He didn't remember anything about what had happened clearly after he had been beaten up. He vaguely remembered Enrico forcing him to go outside, but that was all. He'd been filled in the details later, though, and he knew what Frank had been forced to do for him.

"You know, he didn't leave you much of a choice," Joe reminded him.

"I know. But it doesn't change the fact that I…" Frank swallowed. "That I killed him. Or that I could have killed you by accident."

Joe nodded somberly. "I get it. I guess there probably isn't anything I can say that will make it any easier. I wish I could have changed what happened, but that doesn't count for much. I am grateful to you that you could do that. I mean, after all, I wouldn't be alive right now if you hadn't."

Frank knew that was true, but it didn't change the horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Callie wants me to give up detective work," he said suddenly. "She doesn't like how dangerous it is, and she's afraid it will put our baby in danger. I didn't want to at first, but the more I thought about, I can see she's right. It will put our family in danger. And after what happened to you… I never want to be in a situation like that again. I never want Callie to be in a situation like that." He paused, taking a few deep breaths. He didn't want Joe to think that this was all just because he was scared.

Joe waited until he was sure Frank had finished. "Callie told me about that. About how she wants you to give it up."

"What did you tell her?" Frank asked, curious about how Joe would handle a situation like that.

"That I understood and that she wasn't wrong for wanting that. I do understand, and if that's what you want, too, it's okay."

Frank stared at his brother in astonishment. Joe was the last person he would have expected to react that way.

"There's just one question," Joe went on. "Is it really what you want?"

Frank sighed. "I don't know. I think it is, but…"

"Do you want my advice?" Joe asked.

"Sure, why not?" Frank replied, certain that Joe's advice would be a complete parroting of what his parents had told him when he and Callie had talked to them about it.

"Between Dad, Sam, you, and me, there are four field operatives in our agency," Joe pointed out. "Sometimes we need that many. Sometimes we could use more than that. But you know what we could use all the time and we don't have? A forensics expert."

"Forensics?" Frank repeated.

"Sure," Joe said. "You'd have to go back to school for several years. Probably do an internship with the NYPD or something for a while before you'd be ready to set up shop on your own, but have you ever thought how nice it would be to have our own forensics lab in our agency? The BPD would probably like it, too. You could set up a deal with them, and then they wouldn't have to send their forensics stuff to New York. You'd have a booming business, you'd still be working on cases, but it would be safe. I mean, what could happen in a lab? And anytime you wanted some excitement, we could find some field work for you to do. As for the school, it would take probably eight years or so and be pretty expensive, but since you'd be doing it for the benefit of the agency, we could pay some of it and chalk it up to a business expense. For that matter, we could talk to the Bayport police, and since you'd be helping them out, too, they might be willing to chip in. I don't really get the thrill of being in a lab, doing stuff with chemicals all day, but you like that sort of thing, and it seems like it could be a perfect solution for you."

Frank sat back, thinking this over for a little bit. "That's a good idea," he said finally. "It might just work."

"Sure, it will," Joe said, a little of his usual teasing tone in his voice. "I thought of it. So, now that that's all decided, how about a good, old-fashioned video game challenge, seeing how neither of us have anything better to do. I bet I can still beat you, and I never did get to play that one I bought back on Black Friday."

"You brought it along?" Frank asked incredulously.

"And the console," Joe replied. "I figured there would be some downtime in River Heights, and then I've just had to bring it along with me. We can hook it up to your TV here, can't we?"

"I'll see if I can," Frank agreed.

For the rest of the afternoon, they did nothing of real importance. Both felt a pang of regret at first at how strange it felt to just waste time together, but that wore off eventually, and they forgot for a little while about everything that had happened: Terry Shanth, the Moriares, Black Rose, Enrico.

Then Callie came home, and Frank jumped up to go to meet her at the door with a kiss. There had been a lot of pain in the last seven years, but Frank was reminded that there had also been a lot of good. There was no way to know what the future held, but at least Callie and Joe were here with him at the beginning of a new chapter.

A/N: So, here we are at the end of the story. Hopefully everything has been explained so that you understand it and that it ended satisfactorily to you. There is going to be at least one more addition to this series. It will be a short story (a few chapters long) that will tie up a few last loose ends. There may be another one after that, but I'll say more about that after the next story is posted.

Once again, thank you so very much for reading and to those of you who have favorited or followed! I really appreciate your support. Most of all, thank you to everyone who has left reviews! I love reading what you think, and your ideas often influence the story (or future stories ;) ). I hope to see you all again soon!