Chapter 1

On the Brink

"I don't understand why you get to have all the fun!" Peterson stood, hands fisted on hips, staring up defiantly at Baskin.

"Look, we've been over it and over it. Which of us was a school track star?" Baskin asked.

Peterson gritted his teeth. "You were, I know, but…"

Baskin cut him off. "And which of us is also a fast runner?"

"Cranston is, but look, I've got a plan!"

"Of course you have a plan! You're a computer nerd, plans are what you do! We brought you into our team so you could plan...not so you could run." Baskin patted Peterson's head condescendingly, until Peterson knocked his hand away.

"Quit feeling sorry for yourself!" Baskin continued. "There will be plenty of glory to go around." He gestured expansively. "Your name will be up there on the Hall of Fame right next to mine. Equal. And we all have equal amounts of ammo, equal weapons, equal gear." He gestured at the boxes lined up along the walls. "Just keep up your work at the firing range, and you'll get as many kills as me and Cranston."

A chime announced the opening of the back door. Both men jumped and reached for their holstered sidearms. But almost instantly, Cranston's voice called the proper password, and the others relaxed. A few moments later he came into view.

"Cranny, my man, how's it going?" Baskin gave a high-five to the new arrival, and they followed it with a low-five for good measure.

"Excellent!" Cranston replied. "Just wait until you see these beauties!" He set three small boxes down on the card table that served as their dining room table, and the men crowded around.

Each grabbed a box and pulled pocket knives out of their pockets, tearing into the packages with the eagerness of Christmas children.

Whistles of appreciation sounded as each man admired the metal piece he'd acquired. Then, with a whoop of joy from Baskin, they all ran to where their nearly-completed, highly-illegal automatic rifles awaited the one piece that each of them now held in his hand. In surprisingly little time, each rifle's assembly was complete.

The men raised the weapons above their heads, hooting with joy.

Baskin hushed them after a few moments. "Okay, let's pack 'em up. Are the handguns and targets in the trunk already?"

"Yeah, they're ready to go."

The men stowed the rifles and a few selected tools, climbed into their Jeep, and set the GPS for a very remote, rarely visited section of forest several hours outside of Toronto. There, if they'd done their painstaking assembly correctly, the handguns and rifles would obliterate the targets they'd selected. With the tools they were bringing, they could make any last-minute adjustments to the aiming and firing assemblies.

When the weapons had proven themselves sufficiently accurate, they would come back to Toronto and get a good night's sleep.

The fun would start tomorrow.

###

Dad and Marina's condo wore as much festive ornamentation as it could hold.

Streamers. Banners. Champagne (though in very small quantities, since Dad wouldn't have any, and neither Dean nor Marina would have much).

Of course, Marina had been the power behind the décor. It wasn't something Dad would have done on his own, despite the depth of his sentiment. He was, after all, a guy. And Dean, being a guy himself, could have done without it. But just the same, he loved Marina for going to the trouble.

His eyes rested once again on one particular banner. It read, "We're so proud of you, Constable Dean Parker!" I wonder where she got that made.

I almost wish she hadn't….

I need a change of scenery. He stood suddenly, without realizing he was going to. "Hey, guys, why don't we go out on the back porch for a while? It's so nice out." He picked up his pop can, which had replaced his champagne glass as soon as the toast was over, and began leaving the table before the others had even agreed.

"Great idea!" His father smiled and stood as well, and then he gave Dean one of those looks. One of those half-second, straight in the eyes looks that somehow manages to speak volumes. This one said, I love you, Buddy, and I know exactly why you need to get out of this place, and I know that you need to talk.

Yeah, Dad can do that.

Dean also saw the quick look that flashed from Dad to Marina, and he saw her read it. "I'll just start getting things cleaned up and let you two talk," she said, just as Dad had wanted her to.

"Thanks, hon." Dad kissed her cheek and headed out.

Dean stopped beside her and gave her a sideways shoulder hug. "Thanks so much for this, Marina. It means a lot that you would go to all this trouble for me."

"It's no trouble at all. I love to do this, and I love you, kiddo." She planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

He smiled and headed on outside.

Oh, it's so nice out here! He inhaled slowly and deeply. The air filled his lungs with a delicious, crisp coolness.

His dad looked comfortable, leaning on the patio railing and looking off toward the westering sun.

Dean walked to his side and leaned on the railing as well.

His dad turned to him, smiling, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Constable Parker. Academy is over. First day in the field tomorrow. Big day! Meeting your training officer, beginning to find out what your life as a cop will be like..."

Dean nodded. "Yeah."

"Nervous?"

Dean nodded again.

His dad gave his shoulder a quick squeeze and turned to look at the sunset again. "Thanks for appreciating Marina's efforts."

Dean chuckled. "Ladies have to do that sort of thing. Mom's the same way."

"I know, I remember."

They enjoyed a comfortable silence for a little while, and then Dad sought out a chair.

Dean followed suit.

"So, what are you most nervous about?" Dad ventured.

Dean sighed and narrowed his eyes as he thought. "I guess about meeting my training officer. I mean...if he's nice, great, but what if he's not?" He shrugged and looked down. "And I'm also worried about that awkward moment when people find out I'm your son."

"You're afraid they'll think you want special treatment."

Dean nodded. "Yeah. Especially my T.O."

"Yeah, but you're always going to be my son, so you're going to have to figure out how to deal with it."

"I figure it will get easier once I have my own reputation, and people know that I got it on my own."

"That's the ticket."

They sat quietly again, but with the perfect ease they'd almost always shared.

"It's turning into a gorgeous sunset," Dad noted.

"Yeah."

"So...how do you plan to deal with it if anyone, especially your T.O., reacts badly to knowing who you are?"

"I just figure I'll tell him that I intend to make it as myself, I'm not riding your coattails, that sort of thing."

"And if their attitude doesn't improve?"

"I haven't figured that out yet."

This time the silence felt expectant.

"So, what is it you're dying to recommend?" Dean asked at last.

Dad chuckled a little. "Just this: Don't try to convince people. Remember, you can NOT prove a negative. You can not prove that you won't ride my coattails. You can only behave respectably, and let people come to their own conclusions. And know this, too...respectable people don't base their self-image on the approval or disapproval of everyone around them. If you need everyone to believe certain things about you, that very neediness will make it hard for them to respect you. Be comfortable with who you are, do the best you can, be teachable, learn from your T.O., learn from your mistakes...there will be lots of those...just do that, and many people will learn to respect you."

"And what about those who don't?" Dean grimaced.

"There will always be some who don't, you know." Dad leaned forward a bit. "But you can't give those who don't respect you the power to override what you know to be true about yourself...that you're flawed like any human being, but you're doing your best, and you care about people, and that's all anyone has a right to ask."

"Believing that when I'm sitting here with you is easy. Believing that when people are dissing me...that's easier said than done."

"Very much so. But you'll get that kind of attitude all the time from the public, more than from other cops. You have to learn to deal with it."

"Dean narrowed his eyes, mentally replaying the barrage of wisdom his father had just dispensed, trying to commit it all to memory. "The part about not being emotionally needy...that really helps."

"Well, don't take it the wrong way. There's a sense in which we're all emotionally needy. You know how much I depend on those closest to me; Marina, Ed, you... and you all depend on me. You don't want to go to the other extreme and be aloof or angry. You'll make friends on the force, forging bonds like you can't imagine. So yes, acknowledge and respect that healthy need...but just be sure your sense of self isn't jerked around by whoever you happen to be with."

He leaned forward and put a hand on Dean's arm. "You are such a fine young man, Dean. I would say that even if you weren't my son. You have nothing to prove in that regard. Just relax with being the man that you are. And that includes knowing that you're only human. You can only do the best that you can do, and no more. There will be times, son..." and here his father's eyes grew moist, "there will be times when lives will rest in your hands, and in your hands they'll die."

He let that awful word hang in the air for a few moments before continuing.

"And you'll wonder who you ever thought you were...what you thought gave you the right to ever have anyone entrust their life to you. You'll feel like the worst kind of failure in the world...because it's a thousand times harder to kneel there in the alley beside someone while he takes his last breath than it is to just call 911 from the nearby building. It's crazy...we'd be the first to tell the 911 caller that it wasn't their fault that they guy died, and we'd mean it. But we'll still blame ourselves if we show up, we do our best, and the victim still dies. It's hard to feel responsible, and yet forgive yourself when the worst happens."

Dad sat back and shook his head. "That's one thing I never got good at...feeling comforted to know that I did my best. I always comforted other cops that way, but never myself. Eddie likes to point that out to me. Jules, too."

Dean just nodded, picturing dark alleys and death. I've seen plenty of photos, but never the real thing. Well, unless you count a body in a coffin, but that's hardly the same thing as what I'll see on the job soon. Maybe even tomorrow.

Death.

"What will happen the first time I look death in the face," he murmured, "and the death I'm facing might be my own?" He didn't look at his father. He hadn't really intended to ask the question aloud.

"Nobody knows the answer to that question until it happens."

"So nobody knows whether or not he's a coward until he faces death," Dean replied quietly.

"You, son, are most definitely not a coward. That much I can tell you for sure. You're a very brave man...you were brave before you even were a man. Think about how much courage it took for you to walk into the SRU for the first time and face me...and how much you showed out in the woods, with Craig Hammond!" Dad's whole expression darkened with the memory

Dean almost winced, both with the pain of the memory and its implications. Then he shivered a little. "We'd better go back inside. It's getting chilly, and it's too dark see well now, anyway."

"Sure thing."

They settled themselves in their favorite chairs in the living room, and Dean spent several moments just looking around the room again. "She really went all out, didn't she?"

"We're both so proud of you, son!"

"Thanks. It means a lot to me."

"But...?"

Dean shook his head, still looking at all of the decorations. There's really no point in saying it, because I know exactly how he'll respond…. And yet, despite himself, the words came out. "What if I let you down?"

His dad didn't seem surprised. In fact, he seemed pleased that Dean had said it. As if he knew I felt that way all along, and was waiting for me to say it.

"You and I are alike in a lot of ways, son. Remember what I told you when you asked me if you could live with me for a while?"

"You looked like you didn't want to say yes, and it really upset me, until I found out that you were just afraid. You said you didn't want me to be disappointed."

"Exactly. And were you?"

"No, of course not! But you're a great dad!"

"And you're a great son."

"But what if I'm not a great cop?"

Dad smiled. "Nobody is at first, son. Just make up your mind to it. You will not be a great cop at first. But you'll be a pretty good rookie, I think...meaning that you'll make lots of mistakes, but you'll listen and learn and improve."

"And...what if I wash out in my rookie year? Most do, you know."

"Then you'll look around, and you'll find out where your passion really lies. If it's still policing, you'll try again. If it's not, then you'll try something else. And I'll be proud of you in whatever you choose, son. I'm proud of who you are, Dean, not just what you do." Dad shook his head ruefully. "Besides, I made some horrible mistakes after you moved in with me! Remember what I said about you, what I called you, after you got in that fight? I still feel awful about that, son!"

"Dad, I'm over it already!"

"I know, but my point is, your mistakes, and my mistakes...they don't cancel love or esteem, son. Okay?"

Dean smiled, willing to concede. "Okay."

"Want another pop?"

"Only if you've got something without caffeine. I want to sleep well tonight." He snorted. "Not that I expect to, whether I have caffeine or not!"

"I think we might have something decaf." Dad started to get up, but Dean gestured him back down. "Don't get up. I've got it."

He walked to the kitchen, and on his way he discovered where Marina had gone. His ears told him that she was watching TV in the third bedroom that served as his father's den.

Right next to the den was the guest bedroom, which his father still called "your room." Dean had always kept pajamas there "just in case," even though he hadn't lived in this condo for a while.

But he had slept there a few times after moving out... on those long nights after the kidnapping when he couldn't bear the thought of being home alone.

This really is a nice condo. I'm glad they moved here. "Do you want a pop too, Dad?" he called back.

"Yeah, sure, thanks."

Dean returned with two cold cans and handed one to his father. "So, all I have to do tomorrow is just show up, screw up, and learn, right?"

His dad threw back his head and laughed aloud. "Yeah, that about sums it up!"

"I guess I can manage that."

"I know you can. Though...I guess that really didn't sound like much of a compliment..."

Dean chuckled. "I know what you meant." But then his smile faded. "There's one more thing I haven't wanted to talk about, though, Dad." He fidgeted with his drink. "Mira and I haven't spoken for a little while."

"Oh?" His father leaned forward, face suddenly full of concern. "I was afraid it was something like that, when you said she couldn't make it tonight."

Dean felt a lump forming in his throat. "She stuck with me through so much...what happened to you, recovering from the kidnapping...and yeah, all of that has made us really close, but it has also shown her what it costs to be seriously involved with a cop, Dad."

Dad nodded sympathetically.

"I've also told her, very honestly, about what police work has done to families that I know intimately...like you and my mom, and Ed and Sophie...what a hard life it can be, being married to a cop. I haven't wanted to sugarcoat it for her, Dad. But now I'm wondering if I made a mistake. She's really not sure she wants this."

"No, son, it's no mistake. You will both be better off if she wrestles with the issues from the start. And if she breaks it off..." he leaned forward to touch Dean's arm. "...I really hope she won't, Dean, because she's a great gal, and you've been through so much together. But if she breaks it off, as painful as that will be, it will still be a lot easier than a divorce down the road... especially if there are children involved by then."

Dean only nodded. "But it makes me sick to think about it." He took a swallow of his drink, not because he wanted it, but because he didn't want to talk.

The words came out anyway as soon as they could. "I really love her, Dad."

"I know you do, son. I know you do."

"The last time she and I spoke, she told me that she had been secretly hoping I would change my mind about being a cop, during that year I took off after the kidnapping. I think she tried to hide it when I re-entered the academy, but I could still tell she was upset. I just didn't think she was upset enough to break it off!"

Dad just nodded thoughtfully.

"I pass by where she works every day. It's so hard not to go in there. So hard not to call, to drop by her house..."

"Are you sure you shouldn't?"

"She asked me not to. She said she wanted to make the next move."

"Then you're right not to. I can't imagine how hard it is, but I know you can do it."

"I wish you could promise me she would decide to stay with me."

"I wish I could too. But I can't."

Dean sighed. "How did you cope with Mom leaving you?"

Dad snorted. "Not the same thing at all, buddy! I was too drunk to even know when she left!" He looked like he was going to go on, but Dean stopped him.

"I don't mean that. I just mean...how did you stop loving her, so it would stop hurting so much?"

Dad sighed, long and slow. "Partly just by being so hurt and angry. But maybe I didn't really stop loving her so much as just learning how to move on, you know? Because the minute she decided to forgive me, right here in this living room last year, I instantly felt no more resentment toward her."

Dean nodded. "But you had to wait a long time for that to happen, and I know it hurt." He shook his head. "There's no way to keep it from tearing my heart out if Mira breaks it off, is there?"

"No, there isn't. But I've found that pain is never as bad as what happens to you if you try to numb it. And I'm not just talking about substances, either, Dean. I'm not going to harp on that. But there are other ways that people try to numb themselves." He ticked them off on his fingers. "Overwork, depressed lethargy, isolation...the point is, just go ahead and let it hurt, son. It will heal with the love of your friends and family." He leaned forward to pat Dean's shoulder. "We'll be here for you, no matter what."

Dean just nodded. At the moment, he didn't want to say a word. Instead, he just looked around the apartment again.

Dad shook his head. "Relationship problems. That's a lot of stress to add to your first day."

"No kidding. But I have a feeling that tomorrow will keep me distracted from it."

"Probably a good bit."

They fell silent, and after a while Dean saw that his father's thoughts were becoming troubling.

"What's wrong?"

"Hm? Oh, nothing."

"Uh-uh, I'm not letting you get away with that. You looked sad."

Dad smiled a little, as if he felt slightly rueful about being caught. "All right, I'll admit it...maybe Mira's not the only one facing what could happen to you. You could get hurt, badly. Permanently disabled...killed...crippled with PTSD...it could happen, son." Dad's eyes grew wet again. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about it. A lot."

"I do too, sometimes. And you want to know something weird? I've been having a lot of dreams about when I was younger, and I've been feeling nostalgic a lot about 'the old days.'

"Me too."

"I think it's because, back before the day of the bombings, nothing really bad had ever happened to me. Then it all hit at once..."

"Yeah."

"Maybe part of me wants to be back in those earlier days, before the bombings, before you were injured, before I was kidnapped...when all I had to worry about was exams and grades and stuff like that. School stuff seemed so huge back then, but it looks like nothing compared to what's happened since then."

"Longing for childhood again," Dad said quietly.

Dean snorted. "Sounds dumb."

"Not to me."

"Well, if that's all it is, I'm through with it. I'm a grown man and proud of it. I wouldn't go back to being a kid."

"Okay then, not childhood, but simpler times. When we were all healthy, we hadn't experienced our tragedies yet, you and Mira were sure of things...it's not unusual to look back like that, when you're standing on the brink of a whole new chapter of life."

"That makes more sense."

They fell silent again. Dean took occasional swigs of his cola, even though he wasn't really thirsty.

Stop trying to avoid the subject, Dean. Just spit it out.

"I uh… I guess I'd better get to what's really bothering me." He didn't look at his father now.

"I've been hoping you would."

Dean sighed and kept his eyes trained on his feet, which rested on the coffee table. "The fact is...well...you said something outside that is the exact opposite of what I believe."

"Oh?" Dad leaned forward again.

Dean had to look up now, to speak into his father's eyes. "I didn't learn I was brave in those woods, Dad! I learned I was...I was a coward, and incompetent, too!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Dad protested, shaking his head and holding up a hand to interrupt.

Dean's words came out in a rush now, overriding his father's protest. "I didn't know what to say to Hammond, and when I tried, I made things worse, not better! And I was...I was such a wreck by the time you guys got there to rescue us...I was scared of the paramedic...Dad, you were there! I screamed when he poured the water over me…." He felt nauseated by the memories that surfaced so powerfully. "That's not the behavior of a brave man, Dad. I'm not a brave man…."

"Son, son, listen to me! I would have been in the same shape you were in, if I'd been inhaling all those fumes and suffering all the psychological torture he put you through!"

"Yeah, maybe, but when I screwed up and made things worse, there weren't any fumes to blame that on. So what did I do that wasn't cowardly, huh?"

He realized he was poised on the edge of his chair, every muscle taut with remembered fear. He forced himself to sit back, and he stared at the ceiling while he focused on his breathing, willing himself to relax.

When he felt ready to speak again, he closed his eyes. "So tell me, Dad...what's one brave thing I did, huh? Tell me one, just one."

"You tried." Dad didn't even hesitate.

Dean just snorted.

"No, I mean it. You tried. You thought about what you'd heard me doing on the job, and you tried to apply it. You didn't just curl up and wait to die. I've dealt with people who would have done just that...people who just folded up and hid inside themselves, waiting for the shot to come. And I don't despise them, don't get me wrong. People handle stress differently. But all I'm trying to say is that your response was courageous. Untrained courage, yes. Inexperienced courage. But courage just the same."

Dean let those words swirl around in his mind, and he decided he could at least partially accept the comfort they wanted to give him. But only partially.

Silence reigned for several long minutes, and when Dean finally broke it, he spoke barely above a whisper.

"The mistake I made didn't just come close to costing me my life. It nearly killed Clark, too. And that's the worst part of it. You know he hardly talks to me anymore. He knows I almost got him killed."

"I'm not so sure," his dad replied, almost as softly. "I've talked to Ed about it. Clark doesn't blame you, nor should he. He's just dealing with the trauma in his own way."

Dean just shook his head, nostrils flared.

"Look at me, son." Dad's voice was so gentle that Dean couldn't resist it. He looked.

"Remember, son...Clark had already come close to dying once, on the day of the bombings, and then the kidnapping just two years later... Facing death like that, twice in such a short time...just imagine doubling what you've been going through, and you might be able to see why Clark just needs some space, some distance from anything that reminds him of the pain."

Dad paused for some more pop. "I'll admit, I'm worried about him, and so is Ed. Everyone needs space now and then, but we're afraid that Clark is withdrawing a bit too much. Ed's been trying to talk him into seeing a counselor, but he won't go."

Dean looked down again.

"But here's my point. Hammond was planning to kill you all along. If he had done it...if he had killed you both...it would have been entirely his fault. His alone. Know that, son." Dad leaned way forward so he could put his hand on Dean's arm. "Know that! Clark knows it. Ed knows it. I know it. And Clark's difficulty in dealing with it isn't your fault. He'll find his way, eventually. His parents won't let him withdraw completely."

Dean felt his eyes brimming. "I don't know if I can handle having anyone else's life in my hands again."

Dad was silent for a while.

"Dean, I'm not sure I should say this...but at this moment, I can't help but wonder...do you really want to be a cop for any reason other than the fact that I was one?"

Dean looked away.

"Son, if you don't want this life, don't think for one moment I'll look down on you for it! It's a hard, hard life, and it may cost you the woman you love...it could end up costing you a whole lot more. It's not for everybody. It's not even for most people. You don't have to be a cop, Dean. Even though you've completed the academy. You don't have to go through with it. Frankly, I'd be relieved if you didn't."

"The decorations say otherwise."

His dad sat back and sighed heavily. "The decorations say that we're proud of you, and we are. We're proud that you finished the academy, because that's quite an accomplishment. Lots of people wash out of the academy, but you didn't! You made it, near the top of your class. That will always be something to be proud of, even if you decide that the cop life is not for you."

Dean stared at his feet a while longer, then shook his head as a new perspective shored up his resolve. "I had zero doubts about being a cop until Mira backed off. And even then, I had almost no doubts at all, until tonight. I think I just have cold feet. I'll feel better tomorrow."

His dad smiled, but it looked more like resignation than pleasure. "I hope you will feel better tomorrow. But regardless of how you feel tomorrow, what I said still stands. You don't have to choose this life. There will be no shame in choosing a different one, if you do."

Dean though some more, then swigged down the rest of his cola and stood up. "I'm going to give it my best, Dad. I've decided that that's the only way I can actually make up my mind. I have to give it my all, and then see how it fits."

"Sounds wise." Dad stood as well.

They walked toward the door together, and paused for a hug. "Oh, I'd better say goodbye to Marina, and thank her," Dean added after he let go of his father.

"That would be nice."

Dean found her still in the den. "Thanks for everything, Marina. I have to go now. I should at least try to get a good night's sleep."

She rose and hugged him. "Sleep well, Dean. We love you, always."

"Thanks. I don't know what I'd do without that."

Marina accompanied him to the door and kissed his cheek. His dad patted his back and pulled the door open for him. "We love you, son."

And then Dean stepped out into the chill, and heard his father's door close behind him.

###

Greg stared at the door for long moments, until he heard Dean's car start and pull away. Then he stared some more, no longer seeing anything.

Marina's arms wrapped around him from behind, pulling him back to the present. He turned around to hug her properly. "Thanks for giving us privacy. He really did need to talk."

"In the interest of full disclosure," she said, looking into his eyes, "I heard every word. Well, maybe not every word, but close to it."

Greg smiled a little. He felt himself choking up a bit, though.

Marina touched his cheek. "You're worried about him."

Greg nodded. "Yeah."

"Isn't that wonderful?" she asked, with a look that half-playfully dared him to follow her line of thought.

After a moment, he smiled a little more broadly. "Yeah, it is. It's a miracle he's a part of my life."

"Yeah."

"A privilege to share his concerns," Greg added.

"Uh huh. And in my opinion, he's awfully lucky to have you back in his life, too!" She kissed him briefly.

He hugged her a little closer. "And I'm lucky to have you."

Next: Chapter 2 - With the Big Boys