Balancing The Scales - Part 19
Balance
by MMB

"Have you got what you need?" Jarod asked Debbie as she came down the stairs with a small overnight bag over her shoulder. He was just coming in from having packed Broots' PC into the trunk of his car so that work could begin on transferring all the Centre files to a dedicated system eventually. "Is that going to be enough?"

"I'm not moving into Grandpa's permanently, Uncle Jarod," Deb replied quietly. "I just don't want to be alone right now."

He reached out and took the overnight bag from her and then put his arm around her shoulders. "I don't blame you, kiddo."

"Uncle Jarod?"

"Yeah?" Her tone was hesitant, so whatever it was that she needed to ask was probably important to her.

"Do you think Grandpa and Daddy will be really upset with me if I called Amherst and put off my enrollment for a term? I mean - I'm going to need to be here when Dad comes home, and I can't see leaving now when I don't even know..." Her words skidded to a halt, but the expression on her face was apprehensive.

Jarod tightened his hug slightly. "I tell you what, Deb - if either of them begin to climb your case, tell them to come talk to me. If the shoe were on either other foot, I've no doubt they'd be putting off their plans until they knew YOU were OK..."

Deb let out a deep breath and seemed to relax a bit beneath Jarod's arm. "I'm glad you're on my side," she commented quietly, putting an arm around his waist and leaning in a bit for the comfort. "I know that both Dad and Grandpa were so excited about my getting accepted - I just don't want to disappoint them..."

"I've known your Grandpa for a very long time," he comforted, "and I've had a chance to get to know your Dad a whole lot better over these last few weeks. I think I can say with confidence that you'd have to do a whole lot more than simply postpone your first term of college to disappoint either of them - considering your reasons for doing so." He smiled down at her. "Besides, I can think of one young man who will be greatly relieved that you've decided not to leave at the end of the week." He watched the young woman blush as her lips turned slightly upwards. "I figured you had thought that one out as well..."

"Uncle Jarod..."

He bent closer to her ear. "I don't disapprove, Deb," he confided softly. When she turned her blue eyes up to him, he merely added, "I just hope you'll be careful. I don't want either you or Kevin to get hurt."

She leaned again. "Thanks."

He patted her shoulder with the hand of the arm wrapped around her. "So... What do you say you and I go see a man about a pizza?"

"Is it getting that late already?"

"Take-and-bake," he specified. "Tastes much better than the 'haul it home in cardboard' variety... Besides, Miss Parker wants me to get another couple of cell phones arranged, and that's going to take a bit - not to mention that I need to stop by a pharmacy and get some antibiotics for Sydney."

Deb waved her hand forward. "How about YOU take care of cell phones and prescriptions while I take my car and pick up a take-and-bake pizza, and we'll meet back at Grandpa's?"

"A woman who thinks logically!" Jarod let go of her and clasped at his chest in mock astonishment. "Be still, my beating..."

"Shut up!" Deb laughed and punched him in the shoulder. "Now I KNOW Grandpa raised you - that's just what he would have said." At Jarod's impertinent smirk, she started to laugh again. "See you later."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Cody Tyler, Sam Atlee." Miss Parker performed the introductions in a business-like tone. "Sam's my new head of Security - once things get going, it's more than likely you two will be working together fairly often."

Sam's dark eyes quickly took the measure of this young man whose hand in his was firm and steady. "I remember seeing you once," he remembered. "Didn't you apply to the sweeper corps?"

"Yes, sir," Tyler nodded and waved for the soft-spoken and intimidating man to take his seat again. "A punctured ear-drum made sure I washed out fairly quickly."

"Well, it won't bar you from what I'm intending for you," Miss Parker quipped and reached for one of the three coffees from the cardboard carrier Tyler had placed in the center of their picnic table along with the bag of donuts she'd ordered.

Tyler reached for the bag and unrolled the top, then offered it to each of his companions before taking one for himself. "With all due respect, ma'am, you haven't told me just what it is that you ARE intending for me yet."

"You're right," Miss Parker said after taking a small bite of her donut. "Well, here it is: Sam here is going to have his hands full of security systems reforms, and I need someone who can take care of tasks for me. A personal assistant, definitely NOT a clerical worker. We will both have our own secretaries - eventually, when we have ourselves an office to work out of..."

"Personal assistant to the Chairman?" Tyler rolled the job title around on his tongue. "What kind of 'assisting' are you thinking will be my duties?"

"I'm thinking the second order of business that I'd dump into your lap would be making arrangements for temporary office space for Centre Administration while the Tower is being rebuilt," she replied quickly, obviously having thought through this particular question with care prior to being asked. "You will take charge of acquiring property in Blue Cove - or Dover, if there's nothing available closer - and then everything else that would naturally go with it: office furniture and equipment, computers, telephones, the whole nine yards. It's going to be pretty hard for me to try to put this place back in business without an office, and I have enough other pressing matters to attend to that having you take that one off my hands would be an immeasurable help."

"So I would be signing contracts in your name? Writing checks on Centre accounts?" Tyler's face clearly showed his astonishment.

"Not immediately - although if my gut instinct about you is correct, there may come a time when you would have such authority," she replied honestly and bluntly. "For the time being, you will only call on me when you have what you feel is the best property for the office with the best price - I will sign the contract and check to pay for it. You will contact suppliers and place orders for as much office equipment and supplies as you feel it will take to get that office up and running quickly. Present me with an itemized order and price list - and I will review the order and sign the check to pay for it."

"How am I to know how big a facility to look for, or how MUCH office equipment and so on to order?" he wanted to know next.

Miss Parker nodded. He was bright, just as she had suspected. "That, of course, will be one of the first orders of business that you and Sam and Jarod and I will be working on together. We will need to figure out just how many director's positions other than our own we will need to run the Centre properly, how many support personnel will be needed to make those jobs run smoothly, and then work from there." She took a long draught of her coffee, grateful for the almost expresso strength of the caffeine. "And before we can do that, we need to go through the employee lists that were saved off-site just prior to the explosion and compare those against known survivor lists. I made some promises last night that I intend to keep - and I can't until we start pulling some organization out of this mess."

She sighed. She knew she had just given a very simplified version of what was going to be a monumental task of putting the Centre back up with what was essentially a skeleton crew. She tipped her head and aimed an assessing grey gaze at the young man. "Well, still interested?"

"Yes, ma'am." Tyler wasn't only interested, he was intrigued. She had promised him something challenging, and what she was suggesting would test his very ability to think logically. "Where do you want me to start?"

"Miss Parker, why don't we simply make use of some of the annex buildings for office space?" Sam asked quietly. "It is property we already possess, with plenty of office equipment and furniture already in place. All we'll need to get ourselves at least a place to begin is to set up a new telephone network and have maybe Jarod help us set up and new computer server and network. It would cost less, take less time, and give us the opportunity to focus on figuring out who survived, who didn't and who's still missing."

"I have to agree," Tyler nodded as he sipped at his coffee. "Until the Centre is back to conducting research and development, a lot of what USED to go on in those annexes will be put on hold, right?"

Miss Parker looked back and forth from one man to the other. "I knew you two would be the core of a good team," she stated with the beginnings of a smile. "I've got a good feeling about this - finally."

Tyler smiled back. "Yes, ma'am." His new job was going to be no cakewalk, nothing at all like babysitting corpses. And he liked his first co-worker already - this Sam Atlee, for an ex-sweeper, was not just dumb muscle.

"Yes, ma'am," Sam added, then put his coffee cup up as if in a toast. "To the rebirth of the Centre."

"Here, here!" the other two agreed in unison, each carefully tapping their Styrofoam cups to each other so as not to scald anyone and then taking a sip of the hot liquid.

"Sam, I'm going to want you to..." Miss Parker began again after putting her coffee cup back down, only to be interrupted by her cell phone. She picked the little instrument off the picnic table, stabbed the connect button and put the device to her ear. "What?"

Tyler watched his boss' face carefully as it went from wide-eyed surprise to a slow nod. "How soon?" she asked into the phone, then lifted her wrist to look at the time. "I'm in the middle of a meeting," she explained firmly, "but I can probably make it in about an hour and a half or two hours. Will that be satisfactory?" She listened again, then nodded. "Very well." She disconnected.

"What the Hell was THAT all about?" Sam was quick to inquire.

Miss Parker set the cell phone down on the table in front of her carefully. "Mr. Ngawe would like to meet with me in his hospital room at my earliest convenience to discuss 'a matter of interest to both the Triumverate as well as the Centre.'" She looked at Sam evenly. "How much do you want to bet..."

Sam was already shaking his head. "No takers, Miss P."

"Chicken," she quipped in a dry tone, then sighed. "OK, boys, drink up the coffee and grab the donuts. We need to go survey us some potential office space in the annexes before Tyler and I head out to Dover, and we don't have a whole lot of time to spend yakking about it anymore."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Debbie pulled her car up to the curb in front of Sydney's house and turned off the engine. In the passenger seat next to her were the two take-and-bake pizzas that Jarod had ordered, and in a sack on top of them was a general selection of salad ingredients she figured would compliment them. Her overnight bag had been tossed into the back seat as Jarod had walked past her car to the town car. She climbed from behind the steering wheel and slipped the shoulder strap of her overnight bag into place, then walked around the car to collect the supper supplies, locking each door as she came to it. It took a balancing act to extricate a hand to turn the front door handle and push into the house.

"Hello," she called as she carefully let the shoulder strap slip so that the overnight bag ended up hanging on the newel of the staircase and began walking toward the kitchen.

"Hi," came the call back, and she followed the voice through the kitchen, depositing the food on the counter on the way through, and into the den. Davy and Kevin were on the floor, Davy on his stomach, with the video game they had been playing paused. "You're back early," Kevin commented, rising to his feet.

"You wanna keep playing?" Davy inquired.

"You go ahead," Kevin replied with a grin. "You're going to need to practice some more if you're ever going to beat me."

"Dang!" Davy muttered and unpaused the game, turning his whole attention to the TV screen.

Deb glanced to the side and noted that Sydney was fast asleep in the day bed. "I see Grandpa's resting, finally."

"Dropped off about a half hour ago," the young Pretender informed her. "I'm waiting for Jarod to come with the antibiotics before I give him much else." He watched as Deb turned to go back into the kitchen. "What's up?"

"I just want to get the food in the fridge," she explained as she did as she intended. "And I was thinking that maybe we could go for a walk? I bet you didn't notice that there's a real interesting park across the street from here..."

Kevin smiled softly. "You're right - I really haven't thought to look around outside very much yet."

"Davy," Deb returned to the door of the den and called to get her cousin's attention, "Kevin and I are going for a walk in the park across the way. Is it OK that you stay here with Grandpa for a bit?"

"Sure," the boy nodded and returned to his game. "I gotta practice - Kevin's been beating me all afternoon!"

"You make me work for it, though," Kevin said in an encouraging tone. "You keep practicing, and the winner will be more a matter of luck than skill. I'll be back in a bit to see how you're doing."

Davy gave a preoccupied wave at the two young adults and then focused on his game. Deb shook her head when Kevin would have reached for a jacket. "It's a nice day, Kev. You aren't going to need it today."

"OK," he was content to follow her lead. They walked out the front door, Deb seeking out and slipping her hand into his the moment they were halfway down the walk. Kevin looked across the street and smiled.

The park was a verdant stretch of lush green grass and tall shade trees. There was little traffic, so the two sauntered across the street without any need to rush. Kevin stopped and stared the moment they stepped from the cement walk onto the springy grass - the lawn at the inn the past weekend had been nothing like this.

Deb smiled at Kevin's astounded expression. "If you want a real experience, take your shoes and socks off," she suggested, bending first one knee up and then the other so that she could demonstrate what she meant.

Kevin followed suit, and then giggled as his first bare foot touched down on the softly bristly sod, sinking into the cushion of grass to the point that individual blades of the herb were pushing up between his toes. "This feels funny," he smiled at his companion, then smiled a little wider when she slipped an arm around his waist while holding her shoes in the other hand. He tucked his socks into his shoes and grasped them in the hand not now resting gently around Deb's shoulder. Together they walked slowly toward the center of the park, and the artificial lake with the duck pond. "What do people do in parks?" he asked her quietly, looking all around them and seeing very few people.

"Oh, they do what we're doing now - just enjoying the green and the fresh air. Sometimes the kids come and play over on the equipment over there..." She pointed, and Kevin followed her finger with his eyes and noticed for the first time the colorful twist of PVC conduit with plastic slides and swings.

"What do children do there?"

Deb shook her head. "God, I keep forgetting, you never..." She gave him a lopsided smile. "Wanna go find out?" Kevin's blue eyes widened, and he nodded. "C'mon then. Play isn't just for kids, you know..."

"It isn't?!" He sounded astonished.

"Of course not, silly! What do you think what you were doing with Davy is considered?"

Kevin stopped in surprise and stared down at her. "That was 'PLAY'?" When she nodded, he shook his head in confusion. "I thought it was a fine-motor dexterity exercise."

"It's that too," Deb replied, her arm around his waist pulling him to begin walking again, "but ultimately, the bulk of the value of the activity is entertainment, not dexterity." She led him over to the swing set. "Here - sit down in this." She relieved him of his shoes and then pointed to the flexible rubberized fabric seat suspended between two chains, then watched in amusement as he struggled to coordinate the act of sitting down with the tendency of the swing to move out from under him. "Just kind of hike up your butt and plop it down," she suggested finally, dropping both pairs of shoes on the grass and then moving to the swing next door. "Watch me." She deposited herself in the swing, then watched Kevin mimic her movements precisely.

"This is very unstable," he commented, trying to put his feet down on the ground without dislodging himself again.

"No it isn't - not for the purpose it was designed for," she countered, slipping out of her swing and moving to stand behind him. "Hang onto the chain on each side at about shoulder level," she then directed him, then, "Now lift your feet from the ground." The moment she saw that he was free, she gave his back a little push and began his movement back and forth.

"Whoa!" Kevin's eyes nearly popped out of his head. Deb was right - the seat beneath him was entirely stable between the tension of his weigh hanging from the crossbar and his now-death-grip on the chain. And the sensation of being almost free from the constraints of gravity was intoxicating. She pushed at his back gently again, and he moved in a wider arc, expanding the feeling of flying. "This is play?" he inquired in an excited and breathless voice.

"Like it?" she asked back, giving him yet another push.

"Oh, YES!" his voice was getting louder in his excitement. The visual experience of seeing things from a progressively higher and then lower repeating perspective, as well as the forward and back movement that accompanied the perspective shift, was invigorating. Her next push was more a hearty shove, and now the arc of his movement became downright thrilling. He laughed - and the experience of laughter under those conditions was one of immeasurable freedom. This WAS being free - and it was beyond wonderful!

Then he noticed that he wasn't getting pushed anymore, but that Deb was once more sitting in the swing next to him, moving her legs back and forth. As he watched her in the process of passing her back and forth, he noticed that she was increasing the arc of her own movement all on her own. "Is that how you do this by yourself?" he asked her during a swing backward.

"Yeah - try it. You swing your legs forward when you begin to move forward and upwards, and then backwards at the top of the forward part. Lean back when you swing your legs forward, and you'll give yourself a bigger boost."

Once more he followed her instructions, and saw that where his momentum had begun to die down before, he was once more flying as high - if not higher - now.

Deb tucked her feet under her and watched her friend learn the art of swinging with a feeling of accomplishment. What a dismal life he must have had never to have played on a swing before now! And how little it had taken for her to give him back a piece of youthful freedom he'd never known had been stolen.

Watching him laugh loudly and exuberantly, his face flushed and aglow with excitement, affirmed in her mind the other reason she wanted to stay home and not leave for Amherst quite yet. Jarod had teased her a little, but it was true: she wanted more time with this naïve and fascinating young man before striking out on her own. Having Kevin in her life to balance what would probably be a difficult and painful time of helping her Dad recover from his injuries would make things so much easier...

"Uh," Kevin twisted to look at Deb again when he saw that she was no longer swinging as high as he was, "how do I slow down?"

"Stop pumping and tuck your feet up if you want to just slow down gradually. OR you can drag your feet in the dirt if you want to stop quickly - although that works better with shoes on rather than off." She demonstrated, although her momentum was enough that she didn't need to scuff more than twice before her swing was stationary again and she was standing beside his, waiting for him to join her.

He felt the swing slip out from beneath his bottom as he stood, then moved to Deb's side and grabbed her under the arms and swung her up into the air, hearing her squeak in surprise. "Wow! That was amazing!"

Deb let her arms land on his shoulders and she looked down into his face. "I thought you might like that..."

And then her ability to speak left her as Kevin slowly lowered her to the ground but kept his arms wrapped tightly around her. His eyes were suddenly very sad. "Who is going to show me all these things when you're not here anymore?" he asked her softly.

"I'm not leaving," she informed him with a trace of a smile on her lips. "I decided while I was home earlier - Dad will need me here, and I have you here now too..."

"Really?" His wide, blue eyes bored deeply into hers.

She linked her hands behind his neck and smiled a bit wider. "Really."

Kevin's entire attention was focused into her eyes, and his breath was coming shorter again - but for another reason entirely. He hesitated for a moment, and then lowered his lips to hers as he had at the inn. And like that last time, he could feel the thrill of holding this girl in his arms in every nerve ending. What was more, she had wrapped her arms around his neck more tightly now and was kissing him back. Eventually lack of oxygen made them part, but not by much.

"I'm glad," he commented quietly and vehemently, still holding her gaze with his.

"Me too," she answered, moving her arms from around his neck to encircle him at the waist and then laying her head against his chest. "Me too."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Miss Parker's back stiffened the closer she came to the hospital door at which two hefty African bodyguards stood at attention. "Gentlemen," she greeted them coolly, feeling Tyler come to a stop at her side, "I believe we are expected."

"Yes, Miss Parker," the guard to the right nodded and pushed the door open to let the two Centre representatives into the room.

Otamo Ngawe lay prone in the hospital bed, and one of his massive assistants stood at his left side with the ever-present attaché case. "Miss Parker," he greeted her congenially. "We are glad to see you survived unharmed."

"I'm also glad to see you, sir," she answered as she motioned Tyler to stay back while she stepped closer to the bed. "I want you to know that the Centre intends to handle all costs incurred by your stay here, sir. It's the least we can do..."

"That's a generous offer, Miss Parker," Ngawe nodded, "and one we accept gratefully. But that is not the matter while moved us to call you today, when you have so much else with which to concern yourself."

"What is the matter that touches both the Triumverate and the Centre, sir?" she asked, almost dreading the answer.

"The fact that the responsibility for the unfortunate incident that landed us in this bed and earned us a sentence of never being able to walk again falls squarely on the shoulders of the Yakuza - specifically the Tokyo branch." Ngawe's voice was flat and firm despite the musical accent. "We know this because we were meeting with Tommy Tanaka and two of his associates when the bomb went off, and he told us about it."

Miss Parker bristled. "You mean to tell me that you know the explosion was deliberately set, and by whom?"

"Indeed, Miss Parker. Tanaka was attempting to warn us to evacuate the building, as a matter of fact."

Miss Parker exchanged a look with Tyler, then turned back to the man in the hospital bed. "You are aware, sir, that if he was in the Tower, the odds are that Tanaka did not survive the blast..."

"You are correct," the African nodded. "But one of his associates DID. Our man stopped him just as he was getting ready to call his associates, we'd imagine."

"Aside from asking that you give this information to the police so that the appropriate charges can be filed against the man," Miss Parker shrugged, "I fail to see..."

"The Yakuza have overstepped their boundaries, Miss Parker!" Ngawe insisted, his voice rising slightly.

An eyebrow rose. "I don't dispute that point."

"They must not be allowed to assume that such presumption on their part will go unaddressed," he continued inexorably.

"Having the man who survived the destruction of the Centre Tower put on public trial for murder and conspiracy will destroy a great deal of Yakuza reputation - face, as they call it there," Miss Parker told the African carefully. "That isn't letting things go unaddressed."

"That also isn't addressing the injury or insult committed against the Triumverate itself," Ngawe retorted. "We have made considerable concessions to the Yakuza over the years - assisted them financially in much the same way we assisted the Centre. The assistance came with the understanding that we would maintain a certain element of control over what actions were taken by that group, the same arrangement as the one with the Centre. With this latest, it will be difficult not to see Triumverate reprisals as an effective disciplinary action."

Miss Parker straightened. "Are you telling me that you expect the Centre to participate in what will essentially become a war between the Yakuza and the Triumverate?" she demanded.

"The Centre is a greatly aggrieved party, with a justifiable reason to..."

"I'm sorry, sir." Miss Parker shook her head. "You gave me absolute authority over the Centre and its actions - and I will not be drawn into this dispute. The Centre will be reorganizing itself in complete accordance with all US and international law - and sending out assassins and participating in a 'war' doesn't fit into that."

"We could order you..." The African frowned. He hadn't expected resistance from this Parker offspring. All the others had been quick to retaliate for all injuries, personal or professional.

"And I would take my objections to your stockholders, sir," Miss Parker answered in a very firm tone. "I will not have the Centre drawn into what will amount to more criminal behavior under my watch. The Centre will not actively hinder you in your efforts or withhold information from you that you might find useful, but we will not actively participate either. We will be contented to have our grievances addressed by allowing the US justice system to deal with the Yakuza representative as a co-conspirator, and I would urge you to give them your depositions as to what you know as soon as possible."

"Your attitude is not one we're used to seeing from the Chairman of the..." began the complaint.

Miss Parker stiffened, and her face became stony. "I'm aware of that, sir. But then, I, for one, have never approved of the manner in which the Centre conducted its business under the previous administrations. What you are seeing, sir, is the face of the NEW Centre, fully dedicated and committed to becoming and remaining a law-abiding member of society." She sighed. "And if our non-participation in your dispute means that the Centre will be required to do without any financial support from your organization in the future, then sobeit."

"Do you have any idea what you are saying?" Ngawe was floored. "We GAVE you this job."

"Indeed." Miss Parker didn't flinch. "That was why I took great pains to make sure that in doing so, you understood completely that you were giving me ABSOLUTE authority. My position makes me personally responsible for everything the Centre does or stands for while under my authority. I take that responsibility very seriously. I will not condone or participate in any kind of criminal behavior, nor will I agree to order representatives of my organization to do so either."

The elderly African gazed evenly at the young American woman - the first person to directly and actively refuse to follow a directive AND threaten to put the matter in the hands of his own stockholders directly, whom they both knew would never approve. The Triumverate, while under his guidance, had done much to shed it criminal activities and attitudes and expected its subsidiaries to follow suit. It now seemed that the Centre would not only follow suit, but up the ante.

"We're certain we will be speaking of this again," Ngawe blinked his eyes tiredly and waved his hand, signaling an end to the meeting. She had tired him out enormously.

"I will not be changing my mind," Miss Parker warned him, then bowed. "I hope that you have a speedy recovery, sir. If there's anything ELSE that the Centre can do for you, please don't hesitate to give me a call." With a look and a nod, she directed Tyler out the hospital door before her.

She wouldn't let him stop and talk until they had waited for and gotten back into the elevator, at which time she relaxed and leaned against the back of the elevator car with a huge expelled breath. "With all due respect, ma'am, what the Hell was that about?"

"Staking out our new corporate policy and drawing lines in the sand, my friend," Miss Parker said, running her fingers through her hair to pull it back from her face. "It's a new day at the Centre. Now even the Triumverate knows." She gazed at her assistant, noting the slightly nervous expression in his eyes. "Relax, Tyler. Nothing's getting ready to land on your head."

"Not yet, anyway," he mumbled to himself, and only the brief, sharp look that she gave him told him that she'd heard him. That she hadn't disputed his addition was not comforting in the least.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Hello?" Jarod called through the house as he pushed the front door closed with his foot.

"Hello..." he heard Davy's voice answer from the back end of the house, and soon his son was trotting toward him.

"Where is everybody?"

"Deb and Kevin went for a walk in the park across the way, and Grandpa's asleep," the boy listed casually. "I've been practicing my game."

Jarod ruffled his son's hair fondly. "Have you heard from your Mom lately?"

"Nope."

"OK. I just want to check on your Grandpa, and then maybe you can help me carry in some stuff from the car?" He let his hand slip to the boy's shoulder.

"Sure! Lemme turn off the game..." Davy trotted ahead of his father toward the den.

Jarod gazed down at Sydney with fondness and concern. Kevin's 3/4s dose of pain medication had apparently done exactly as intended, because the older man was deeply asleep. The Pretender leaned over and very carefully put the back of his fingers against his old mentor's cheeks and then frowned at the continuing feeling of extra warmth that they were radiating. It wasn't a good sign at all - and Jarod was glad that one of the many bags he'd dropped in the kitchen on the way in here was the one with the high-end antibiotic in both injectable as well as capsule form.

"Is Grandpa OK?" Davy asked, coming over to stand by his father. "I mean, he's sleeping so much today..."

"Kevin gave him some medicine that is helping him sleep," Jarod explained quietly, although there was little chance that even a regular conversational tone would rouse the older man at this point. "Grandpa's got an infection from his injury that we'll have to help him with, but he'll be fine soon - you'll see."

"Why was Grandpa shot, Daddy?"

Jarod looked down at his son sharply. It was a logical question - but one that took him by surprise by virtue of it not having arisen before now. Davy was an inquisitive child. He berated himself for not having understood that the boy would want to at least understand what had happened to someone so important to him. He decided that honesty was the best policy - but that Davy didn't need to know EVERYTHING.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, son," he explained gently. "There was some excitement at the Centre, somebody drew a gun and fired, and one of the bullets hit your grandfather - completely by accident."

"So why didn't he go to the hospital?" Davy asked, a little less hesitantly since it seemed that some of his secret questions stood a good chance of getting answered at last.

Jarod sighed. "There would have been a lot of questions asked at the hospital that Grandpa didn't want to have to answer - questions that could have gotten him and Sam into a lot of trouble. Besides, I'm a doctor too, and I've dealt with bullet wounds before."

"Then why does he have an infection?" Grey eyes, so much like his mother's, gazed up into his father's dark chocolate.

"Because he hasn't been able to rest properly and heal," Jarod answered patiently. "Things have been pretty much in an uproar around here lately, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Well," Jarod jumped in, not allowing his son to throw in the slightest conditional phrase, "all that excitement has meant that Grandpa has been far more active than he should have been. He's been up, walking around, driving a car..." that last was uttered with no small amount of frustration and guilt, "when he should have been staying quiet and taking it easy - especially if his injury was a little worse than we originally thought."

"So, IS he going to get better?" Davy insisted anxiously.

"That's why I picked up some really strong pills for him on my way home," his father explained. "They should take care of any infection he might be brewing, while the pain pills we've been trying to get him to take can help him rest and give his body a chance to heal itself."

The sounds of the front door opening and closing and happy voices suddenly came from toward the front of the house. "Hello?" called out Kevin's voice, followed almost immediately by "Uncle Jarod?"

"C'mon," Jarod patted Davy on his shoulder. "Let's go and get the car unloaded, shall we?" The two of them left Sydney to his slumber and retraced their steps back through the kitchen to meet the two young adults. Jarod's eyebrows rose speculatively when he saw the glow of excitement still lighting Kevin's face, and Deb's slightly mussed braid. "Looks like you two did more than just walk in that park," he commented slyly.

"Uncle Jarod!"

Kevin smiled broadly. "Have you ever played in a swing?"

Jarod's smile was without guile. "Ah! That explains some of it, then..."

Deb gave him a half-hearted frown. "I think I'll see about getting the salad made for supper," she grumbled and headed toward the kitchen.

"How's Sydney?" Kevin asked quickly, noting the direction the Pretender and his son were coming from.

"Still out. Wanna come help us unload the car?" Davy trotted ahead and out the front door.

"Sure."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Miss Parker paused in front of Broots' hospital door and turned to Tyler. "You don't have to come in with me - you can wait for me down in the lobby, I'll be there shortly."

Tyler gazed at his boss. Obviously this visit was going to be something a little more personal - private. "Sure," he nodded. "I'll see you down there."

"I'll explain later," she called after him, then saw him wave at her before heading off for the elevator. For her part, she turned back to the door and pushed through slowly.

Debbie's description didn't prepare her for the sight of her old friend laid out on his back with a sheet and thin blanket the only things discretely pulled over a lower body obviously encased for the most part in plaster. Near the head of the bed, the IV was still hooked into several plastic bags of clear liquid, and she took comfort in seeing that he evidently was no longer in need of blood any longer.

She moved closer to the bed. Broots was incredibly pale - almost translucent - against the bleached and starched white of the pillow. There was a small bruise on his forehead over his right eyebrow ridge that stood out starkly against the pale skin. Miss Parker sat down in the chair where, she knew, Deb had probably sat not that long ago herself.

"I'm so sorry I didn't know you were there," she began softly, hesitantly. She reached out for the hand without the IV leash. "I assumed the Sim Lab was locked up with Syd home, and never bothered to check. I..."

Amazingly, Broots' fingers moved slightly within her grasp, and he groaned very softly as his eyelids fluttered.

"Broots?" Miss Parker called gently. "Hey there!"

Finally winning his battle through the fog, Broots forced the immensely heavy lids to roll back and looked up into a world that, for a moment, was completely out of focus. Then, furrowing his brow a little, he brought his world into focus. "M...Miss... Par..."

"Yes," she rose slightly and bent over him to brush her lips against his cheek. "It's me."

"Wh...where...?"

"You're in a hospital in Dover, Broots - you got pretty badly mashed by that file cabinet when it fell on you, you know..."

His brows furrowed yet again. "What... How...?"

"There was an explosion," she explained gently. "A bomb. The Tower is gone now..."

His eyes opened wide. "Where... Sydney?"

"He was at his house, resting." She frowned. "He's fine, Broots. Debbie's staying with him, and so is Kevin."

Kevin? The name sounded familiar, but...

Miss Parker patted his hand in hers comfortingly. "Take it easy. You had a very close call - it may take a while for your memory to put things back in order." She smiled down at him. "But I'll be able to tell Debbie that her Dad is awake again - and that will make your little girl VERY happy."

"Deb..."

"She'll probably be in to see you in the morning - and I should go so that you can rest." She could see that the energy needed to try to focus his mind was exhausting him. She leaned over him again and kissed his cheek again. "I'll be back when I can, probably tomorrow too."

Broots nodded and finally quit struggling to keep the heavy lids from falling over his eyes again. As he dropped back into sleep, he felt his hand once more carefully placed on the rough blanket surface.

Miss Parker paused and leaned against the wall just outside the hospital room, rubbing under her nose to prevent any of the threatening tears from actually escaping. Debbie WOULD be thrilled to hear that her father had regained consciousness, even if just for a little while. At least she'd be able to be the bearer of GOOD news this time...

She looked down at her wristwatch and straightened with a sigh, pulling herself together and pushing herself to walk toward the elevator. It had been a long day compressed into just a few afternoon hours. Muscles that had only barely agreed to work for her were now beginning to complain loudly, demanding rest. And her stomach was empty. It was time to go home and spend quality time with her family.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The assignment office for the sweeper corps had always been thought to be unfortunately distant from the center of Centre operations, but Sam had discovered that the distance had afforded the office the safety of only having its windows shattered from the blast. All the equipment and paperwork stored there was still safe and - more importantly - easily accessible.

And so an hour or so of sorting through three completely full bookcase-sized file cabinets later, he had a fairly complete list of the security personnel - both sweepers and cleaners - and their home addresses and phone numbers. His evening hours and probably the better part of the next day would be filled with telephoning - making sure who was OK and who had been injured and how badly - then putting together some kind of work schedule.

A tighter security net, loyal to Centre interests, needed to be put in place on what remained of the facility - and arrangements to get it into place needed to happen as quickly as possible. There was still plenty of sensitive and highly classified information present and accounted for in surviving file cabinets - and the local constabulary couldn't be counted on to provide a proper level of security and protection for that information for very much longer.

The three of them - Miss Parker, Tyler, and Sam - had hiked all over the remaining arms of the various annexes. Copious notes were taken by both himself and Tyler as to what remained, where it was located, and whether or not it was vital to get it up and running immediately. Those not deemed vital could be temporarily mothballed to provide office space for Centre administration during the rebuilding. Security gymnasiums, locker rooms and work-out rooms were among those specifically chosen for mothballing and transformation, as were many of the smaller offices in the sweeper's annex.

There also remained the task of taking down the overwhelming and stifling number of surveillance cameras in the surviving corridors and rooms, and begin setting up a graduated and methodical system of security locks and measures that would be most appropriate at each increasing level of security desired.

Sam gazed out the window at the dimming light and decided that he could call it quits for being on-site for the day. There was going to be an organizational meeting at Sydney's over pizza, he understood, and a glance at his watch told him he had about an hour to get there or be late. And knowing the male appetites of late, being 'late for dinner' wasn't such a wise move anymore - and heaven only knew what Tyler's capacity for pizza was.

He piled the collection of files into a briefcase he'd found set aside for other purposes and snapped it shut, then headed back towards where Miss Parker had left Jarod's sports car. He tossed the briefcase in the passenger seat, then sat and stared out at the rubble yet again. The amount of work it would take to rebuild the Centre was going to be beyond understanding - and Miss Parker was going to be reorganizing the whole thing at the same time.

A turn of the key brought the powerful little car to growling life, and a flick of a switch had the headlights on. Let each day take care of itself, he decided, and put the little car back on the road to Blue Cove.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Jarod had stopped at a hardware store on his way back to Sydney's and picked up a card table on which Broots' computer and printer could be set up, and this he had situated in a far corner of the kitchen, where the light was good. While Debbie puttered with preparing salad vegetables, Sydney continued to slumber on his day bed, and Davy and Kevin returned to their intense competition at the video racing game, he sorted his way through the various files that Broots had copied onto the system for study.

He was frankly amazed at how much of the Centre's internal organizational framework information was safely stored there: fairly complete financial records including bank account numbers and passwords, personnel records and payroll details, and a database of on-going projects complete with assigned personnel, objectives and potential customers or existing clients. All that was missing from this terminal was the ability to scour the now-demolished mainframe for deleted files and any intra-net memo passed back and forth between Raines, Lyle and others. It seemed, however, that Broots had a goodly share of the functional heart of the Centre nicely backed up on a single, huge, removable hard drive.

Remembering that the first order of business that Miss Parker wanted handled was the question of Centre employees. She wanted to know who had been rescued, who had been killed outright, and who was missing - so he returned to the employee database and selected the necessary fields for a report and began the print job. The report was a long one, longer than he imagined she expected.

There was a sharp knock on the front door, and then the sound of the door opening. "Hello?" Sam's voice called out into the building.

"We're back here," Deb answered automatically as she bent to pull a box of plastic wrap from the drawer where Sydney kept it and cover the prepared salad bowl until time to eat.

Sam leaned against the hallway door tiredly for a moment, his eyes bouncing from Deb to Jarod. "You two it?"

"Nah. The boys are in the den with Syd," Jarod answered, snagging the next page to emerge from the printer.

"How's Syd?" The ex-sweeper deposited his briefcase in an out-of-the-way corner near the arcadia doors and sat down in a kitchen chair.

"Fast asleep for the time being," Jarod grabbed the next page as well. "He's still running a fever, but a low one at the moment."

"Is everybody here?" called Miss Parker's voice from the front of the house.

"Back here," Sam called in his turn, then turned and watched her lead a slightly hesitant Tyler back into the less public areas of Sydney's house. "Oh good - now the gang's ALL here!"

"Mommy!" Davy careened out of the den and grabbed his mother around the waist.

"Whoa! I haven't been gone all THAT long," she told him as soon as she could pull her breath in again, then bent and kissed the top of his head and then straightened again. "Tyler, let me introduce you to the rest of our little mob scene. This gremlin is my son, Davy, and the hard-working chef over there is Deb - Broots' daughter."

Tyler nodded at Deb with a polite "ma'am," and then bent and shook hands with Davy. "Hey there!" He looked up to see another younger man with sandy hair emerge from another room.

"This is Kevin," Davy introduced the younger Pretender before his mother could get to it. "And Grandpa Sydney's asleep in the den."

"No I'm not," came the lightly-accented voice in tired tones. "Not anymore, at any rate."

Jarod stood immediately and reached for the small white bag that he'd acquired from the pharmacy. "Good," he responded and followed the voice into the den, where Sydney was still resting quietly against his pillow. "One injection tonight, another tomorrow, and then pills from there on," he told his mentor. "We're going to get on top of this infection in no time, provided you get as much rest as you did today."

"Suits me," Sydney replied, beginning to roll up his sleeve as Jarod seated himself precariously on the edge of the sofa that was the day bed.

"I take it this Sydney is your father?" Tyler asked Miss Parker quickly.

She hesitated. Explaining family ties for this group always took so long... "For all intents and purposes," she decided was the best route. "He helped raise me for a while, and has been a father to me and grandfather to Davy for many, many years now." She saw Tyler simply accept the information without asking a lot of probing questions, for which she was grateful.

"Deb," she moved to the young woman's side, "I stopped by to see your dad after my meeting with Ngawe, and he woke up a bit." Debbie's smile was wide and incredibly relieved. "He's still a little jumbled as to details, but I'd expect that to straighten out as he wakes up more and more."

"Thanks!" Deb swallowed hard and gave Miss Parker a cautious, wet-handed hug. "At least I know that he won't be needing all those tests tomorrow."

"Have a seat, Tyler," Sam invited with a wave at one of the other kitchen chairs. "This crew can be a bit overwhelming at first, until you get to know them better."

"I'm still trying to figure out how I managed to get in," Tyler admitted with a little chagrin, following Sam's direction and parking himself at the kitchen table with the Security Chief. "Just a day or so ago, I was but a simple corpse jockey..."

"Stupid job assignment," Miss Parker spoke up from the other side of the kitchen. "I've never seen a worse case of inappropriate use of resources in my life." She squeezed Deb again and then moved toward the door to the den. "You're here because the people here are those I trust most - and I think you'll soon fit in here just fine."

Tyler's head sat a little straighter and taller on his neck. "I'll do my best to live up to your expectations, ma'am," he drawled at her.

"I don't doubt it," she responded, then moved through the den door and watched Jarod carefully tending to Sydney. "How is he this evening?"

"I can speak for myself, Parker," Sydney grumbled at her. "I'm feeling better than I did earlier, that's for sure..."

"I just gave him an injection of antibiotic," Jarod explained as he rolled Sydney's sleeve back down, "and another in the morning. That should put a serious dent in that infection of his. The rest is a question of rest and no more stress." He rose with the used syringe. "I'll be right back - this has to be destroyed..."

Miss Parker found the spot that Jarod had just vacated and sat down next to her old friend. "Feeling a little better, eh?"

Sydney didn't answer her, but gazed into her face. "You look tired and a bit ragged, Parker. What happened?"

"I got a call to meet with Ngawe at the hospital this afternoon," she admitted. "He's starting to make noises about war between the Yakuza and the Triumverate - seems Tommy Tanaka was meeting with him and confessed to having set up the bombing when everything went..."

Sydney laid a hand on her upper arm. "What did you tell him?" he asked quietly.

"I told him the Centre wanted no part in it." She raised her eyes to his firmly. "No more, Sydney."

His face softened, and his hand moved to cup her chin and cheek. "Your mother would be so proud of you." His thumb stroked the cheek. "I know I am..."

"It's going to be such a big job to put the Centre back together, Sydney," she whispered, leaning carefully until her head rested on his shoulder. "I don't know if..."

"Hush," he soothed, wrapping her in a warm hug. "If anybody can do it, YOU can! You've got some of the best people for the job in your corner to pitch right in, too. Sam, Jarod, Broots when he's better, Kevin..."

"And Tyler," she added to his list. "You need to meet him - I just made him my Personal Assistant." She straightened and called out into the kitchen, "Tyler, can you come here please? There's someone I want you to meet."

Sydney raised his gaze and watched a very capable-looking young man walk through the kitchen door. "Sydney, this is Cody Tyler. Tyler, this is Dr. Sydney Green."

Tyler approached the day bed with a hand outstretched. "I'm please to meet you, sir." He studied the man to whom his boss seemed very attached, finding the face a kind one, the eyes incredibly intelligent, and the grip in his hand a firm and strong one despite the man's apparent invalid status. Miss Parker was obviously the apple of this older man's eye. 'Father, for all intents and purposes' - it had been a very apt description.

"I'll go help Deb get the food on the table," Miss Parker said rising.

"So," Sydney folded his arms across his chest and watched the reactions of this young man, so obviously abandoned in his company for a good reason, "are you sure you're ready for what she's going to throw at you?"

"If I can keep up with her going up and down stairs last night," Tyler assured the older man, finding himself unable to precisely identify the light European accent, "I doubt there's much else she can throw at me I can't handle."

"We'll see if you're still of the same opinion a month from today," Jarod chuckled as he re-entered the den. "Miss Parker can be a MOST demanding boss."

"Jarod, Sydney, stop trying to scare him!" Miss Parker's voice came at them from the kitchen. "If Sam can put up with me all these years..."

"I did?" Sam's voice sounded astonished.

Tyler's face crinkled into a smile. Not only were these people she 'trusted most', but who obviously cared about her and about each other. For the first time since his parents had been killed in that automobile accident years ago, he felt the strong and invisible ties of family reaching out and touching him. This kind of banter he understood well - and was more than willing to join in. He put on his thickest drawl. "Are either of you two gentlemen of the betting variety?"

Jarod and Sydney looked at each other with no small amount of amusement. "I think he'll do just fine," Sydney told his former protégé with a nod in Tyler's direction. "He has the right attitude to deal not only with Miss Parker, but with the rest of us."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Fujimori was grateful that the nurse had pulled the curtains around his bed the last time she had been in to check on him, and grateful that she'd understood him well enough that she had turned off the over-the-bed light so that he could supposedly get some sleep. He was getting very tired of being the sole object of observation of the stony-faced Triumverate strong man assigned to keep an eye on him and the loss of privacy such close watch had meant.

Being a captive of the Triumverate was not a tolerable position to be in - and face and bushido required that he take care of the situation in the most effective way possible. Escape, in his condition, was out of the question - and there was no way to call out to his Yakuza brothers to ask for help, much less let them know where he was. No, he really only had one option left to him - and that option required privacy.

It was too bad, really - he genuinely HAD intended to resign his Yakuza position and enter the monastery. Perhaps in a next life...

He carefully schooled his face to show no emotion or reaction at all as he continued to pass the sharp edges of the Yakuza ring back and forth over the top of the pulse point in his left wrist beneath the blanket and sheet. Considering that his condition was good enough that he stood a good chance of escaping close examination by any of the medical staff until long after it was too late, he had been working diligently at shredding the artery there for over an hour.

There! He felt something give in his wrist, and the sheet above his wrist was suddenly splashed once and then again from beneath with a crimson swatch. He retrieved his right hand and repositioned the blanket to hide the bloodstain even as he twisted his wrist so that the arterial spray would be aimed at his body and into the mattress rather than up. He popped the sharp ring into his mouth to suck away any signs to indicate how it had been used, then relaxed back into his pillow and closed his eyes.

And quietly, to himself, he began reciting his mantras over and over again until he lost consciousness for the last time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Jarod fingered aside the curtains and looked down at the darkened lawn of the summerhouse. Strange that he felt so much at home here, even now. In his mind, he brought forth a memory of the view from his bedroom window in California, and then marveled at the sensation of detachment that now came with it. He had been so proud of his first real purchase as a real human being - with a name and a family that genuinely belonged to him and a profession and a career he'd crafted for himself through proper channels. The house sat on the side of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and his bedroom picture window was one of the best views from the house.

His office was only a short drive away, and was a place he had taken great pains to decorate himself in such a manner that his young patients would feel at ease quickly. He saw the faces of his patients in the back of his mind - especially that of little Ginger - and then finally felt the familiar draw of attachment and separation.

Miss Parker entered the bedroom after putting their son to bed and stood in the doorway for a while, watching him. Jarod's face was a study of conflicting emotions - relief, loneliness, happiness and frustration. She knew what was going on. He'd done what he'd set out to do; his entire reason for being here was finished. The Centre - as they all had known it for all these years - was no more. His family was safe from having to live life constantly looking over their shoulders.

But he'd gotten more than he'd bargained for with his efforts. He had a son he obviously doted on, and had reconnected with his former mentor and now enjoyed the kind of father-son relationship with him he'd dreamed of as a child. He'd found a younger version of himself and was enjoying being a part of the team carefully shepherding the young man away from his seclusion and into the mainstream of life. He'd openly made friends with the Broots' and Sam - the latter probably very much a surprise - and had made a place for himself, a comfortable place. And then, of course, was THEIR relationship, still very new and very fragile, but a logical consequence of the decades of history between them - not to mention that his beloved son was hers as well.

She quietly moved over to his side and put a gentle hand on his shoulder without saying a word. In response, he put the hand not holding the curtain aside over hers and pressed gently. She moved in close to him and leaned her cheek into his upper arm. "What is it?" she inquired gently.

"I promised," he began, not exactly sure how to continue.

"I know," she commented quickly. "And now that everything's over and done with, you have a promise to keep."

"I've already told my mom I won't be staying there," he told her in an almost distracted tone. "She wasn't happy."

She kissed his shoulder and then snuggled her cheek back against his arm again. "You're not really surprised, are you?"

"No." The admission had a fatalistic tone. "But I was hoping..." He breathed in deeply and then let it out in a sigh. "On the other hand, Ethan sounded like he'd been expecting to hear that all along."

"Your mother suffered as much as you did, Jarod. I don't know what I'd do if Davy were stolen from me the way you were from her." Miss Parker's other arm found its way around his waist. "Now she's protective where you're concerned. I don't blame her."

"But she blames you," he told her sadly. "Even though she spoke briefly with Davy, she couldn't..." He sighed deeply again.

"Are you sorry we started this?" Miss Parker asked carefully. "Us, I mean?"

Jarod shook his head slowly. "No, I'm not sorry about that at all. I told you the first night I came back, the reason I never said goodbye to you before was that if I'd tried, I'd have never left at all." Now, at last, he turned away from the window and wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "Of the many things I've done in my life, this is the last thing I'd be sorry for. I love you."

"But you have to go home," she finished for him, laying her head on his shoulder.

"I have a life to tie up there before I can be fully here with you," he nodded, then lay his cheek against her forehead. "I have a few temper tantrums to live through. I doubt Em or Jay will be much more understanding than Mom."

"I can't go with you, either," she heard the unspoken thought. "I'm still the 'enemy'."

"AND you have this huge job that you can't just walk away from right now," he added. "You're the only one who can do what you intend, and I can't distract you from that."

They stood quietly, embracing and embraced, for a long moment. Then, "When are you leaving?"

She felt him sigh yet again. "As soon as I'm sure Syd's out of the woods and Broots is definitely on the mend. Once I know that you have no major worries from your family, THEN I know I won't be putting too much stress on you." He buried his nose in her fragrant hair. "I just can't tell you how long I will be - all I can do is promise I'm coming home."

"Just as you promised your mother." The whispered thought escaped her lips before she could hold the words back.

"With one major difference," he replied, then moved out of her arms to go to his sports jacket, laying on the foot of the bed. He pulled a small box from one of the pockets and then brought it back over to the window and her. He opened the box, and showed her the diamond solitaire it held. "I would never miss my own wedding."

Grey eyes wide with surprise looked up into his warm chocolate. "Jarod!" she breathed as he carefully removed the ring from its velvet slot.

"I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me, Melissa Parker?" he asked softly, taking her left hand in his and holding the ring very close to her ring finger.

"Yes," she responded almost inaudibly.

He slipped the ring on her finger, he bent and captured her lips with his. Nothing more needed saying between them.

FIN

[Author's note: I would like to say thank you to everyone who has submitted reviews for this at FanFiction or used the email address at the bottom to let me know what you think - each and every one of you have made the job of writing a real pleasure for me, I assure you. I also owe a thousand-million thanks to my beta team, Nans, Julie and Lee - and even Deb on occasions - I couldn't have done this job without any of you watching over my shoulder and making constructive criticisms and suggestions. And yes, I know that by apparently finishing things here I'm leaving a great many story threads very much up in the air. Don't worry, though - I have no intentions of just dropping the story half-told with war brewing and a Centre to reorganize and Jarod on his way to California. Stay tuned for the next offering of this story, entitled "Truth and Consequences", coming soon. MMB]

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