"So, Laurie…what should we do about Matty Branson?"
Rick looked at his wife, who was gripping his hand nervously. All the way to Phoenix P.D., they had talked about the Branson's, the tragedy of a mother growing old by herself with her son in jail and husband in prison. Overshadowing the past week was Ceci's blaming herself for being kidnapped and putting her aunt and uncle in danger.
"Honey, Branson had weeks to plan his revenge…ever since you and Ricky passed the application test." Laurie had reassured her, sitting down with her at A.J.'s home. Ceci had told them how Branson had snuck up behind her when she was leaving the police academy, then forced her at gunpoint to leave her car near home and get into his.
"But I wasn't even thinking….how could I be a police officer when I don't even know to lock my car door when I'm by myself?" Ceci said tearfully. A.J. came over and kneeling down, put a hand on his daughter's shoulder.
"You can, because you know better…you'll remember to lock your door and not walk alone from class and know your surroundings, honey. You'll be more alert and aware and …well, listen to your old dad when he tells you to be careful."
"Oh…daddy…" Ceci broke down and buried her face in A.J.'s shirt, bringing sniffles from the others in the room. A.J. traded places with his sister-in-law and comforted his daughter, whispering, "It's all right now, honey….we'll never let anything happen to you."
Now it was the older Simons' turn to face Ron and the assistant D.A., who were planning to ask for ten years prison time for the younger Branson. As they sat in Ron's office, Rick knew it was for the last time, as the younger man had filed his retirement papers and would be vacating the room within the week.
"Rick and I talked long and hard about this, Ron…Mr. Frias." Laurie said, taking a deep breath. "Matty Branson did a terrible thing…trying to harm Ricky and Ceci….and he does need to serve time for that. But prison would only poison him…turn him into his father…"
"That's why we think he should serve 2 years in jail, then five years probation." Rick continued, "and mandatory counseling…something to help him with his anger issues. I can't believe no one caught his problems before this, and we think he does deserve a new start."
"Are you sure?" Ron had a dubious look on his face, then his expression softened as Laurie replied, "I'm sure, Ron….everyone deserves a second chance, and Matty needs to see that he's worth one."
"Okay, honey….Hank, you've got their recommendation." Ron smiled as the assistant D.A shook his head but extended a hand to both Simons.
"I hope you folks are right….thanks for the time and effort you've put in on this….I'll let you know when the sentencing hearing is."
As Frias left the room, Ron looked around his bare office, then sighed.
"I'm calling it a day, Abby wants you both to come to dinner, are you free?"
"I think we can clear our schedules…" Rick smirked, helping Laurie out of her seat.
As they left the building, Ron looked around with a wistful air, and Laurie remarked, "This place won't be the same without you, Ron."
"Well, I hope you two won't have to make any visits to it, save to visit a grandson or nephew." He replied, as Rick added, "Or niece!"
"I don't know, darling, I almost wish Ceci would find another field to work in…" Laurie sighed, and Ron gave her a sympathetic nod as they reached their cars.
"I get it, honey….I'm just glad Joey wants to be an archeologist….Rob did a nice thing helping him get that internship at the Center."
As they drove the few minutes to the Johnson's condo, Rick looked at his wife, then quietly said, "You really don't want Ceci to continue at the Academy, do you, sweetheart?"
"I know I'm being a worry-wart….but I really wish she'd go into counseling or something…" Laurie admitted, then smiled up at Rick.
"Thank you, love, for letting me talk this out. I'm okay with whatever the kids want to do, I just hope it'll be something they love."
Moved, Rick pulled into the Johnson's drive, then turned and wrapped his arms around Laurie, whispering, "You're who I love, the most generous, supportive wife a man could have."
"Because of you, darling," she murmured, meeting his lips with hers.
Only a "ahem", reminded them where they were, and Rick snickered at the sight of Ron and Abby 'tsking" them from outside the car.
"Uh, see anything you two like?" Rick laughed getting out of the car as Ron went to open a blushing Laurie's door.
"Not anything we haven't seen before, you goof!" Abby teased, giving him a hug.
As Ron and Abby led their friends into their home, Rick noticed that only the entry light was on.
"What happened, pal, someone forgot to pay the …" he began, then a loud "Surprise!"
Startled, he nearly jumped as the lights came on and a host of family and friends began to sing "Happy Birthday to you!"
"What the…." Rick said, then looked down to see his wife giggling as she sang along.
"You sneaky little ….did you know about this?"
"I knew A.J. and Ron were planning this….but I didn't get the high sign until Ron invited us for dinner. And I was afraid I'd let the cat out of the bag if you didn't want to go out." Laurie confessed sheepishly. Rick gave her a heartfelt hug as "And many more!" rang out from the crowd, then A.J. and Cecilia came forward to embrace the couple.
"Tied up with football practice, huh?" Rick pretended grab for his brother as A.J. chuckled, trying to dodge him.
"Yeah, thought that one might still work, figured it was the only way we could ferry everyone over here."
"Enough roughhousing, son….it's party time!" Cecilia reminded him with a twinkle in her eye, and both brothers chorused, "Yes, Mom".
"See honey, you still have it!" Oscar grinned, putting an arm around his wife. Cecilia looked smug as she replied, "Yes I do, now how about helping me with the vegetables?"
"Yes, dear." He smiled, then winked at Rick as he followed her into the kitchen.
"Now there's a contented man…" Steve Austin came up to greet his friend and Rick matched his smile.
"And I've got a happy mom…what more could I ask….save one of those steaks!" he pointed at a stack of t-bones being placed on the living room table. Steve just laughed.
As soon as the large gathering was seated around two expanded tables, Ron stood to deliver a toast.
"To a man who I once thought would be trouble for me and the department…but whose only helped me through his honesty and friendship. Thank you for being my friend and back-up all these years….Happy Birthday, Rick!"
Misty-eyed, Rick raised his glass in return, then stood as everyone applauded.
"Thank you, pal…for being there for our family, friends…heck, for A.J. and Laurie and me. For marrying one of my best friends, and protecting our community. You might toast my birthday, but I toast your 25 years of commitment. To a friend for life…to you, Ron."
"Here, here…." A.J. raised his glass along with the others, then added, "and thanks for hosting our shindig….the only way we could put one over on my brother….thank you!"
As everyone echoed the thanks, a small voice was heard to say, "Can't we eat now?"
"Is that my Chelsea?" Rick reached across the table and scooped up his bright-eyed granddaughter. She giggled as she hugged his neck, then said, "Can we, grandpa….cause I'm hungry!"
"Sure we can eat, how about eating with Grandpa and Grandma, sweet pea?" he laughed, as A.J. called out, ""How about it, soup's on!"
After a very filling dinner complete with a large sheet cake of chocolate and coffee filling, everyone sat around reminiscing and telling "Rick" stories. The birthday boy was in the midst of hearing an embarrassing tale from Robbie when he noticed Laurie had left the room. Excusing himself, he went in search of her and found his wife standing at the back door, wiping her eyes.
"What is it, sweetheart?" he asked, putting an arm around her shoulders. Startled, she looked up at him, then smiled.
"I'm all right, darling. I just had such a strong feeling……I need to cherish this time we have together, because I keep thinking what if….what if Steve didn't find you for me…what if something stopped us from being together…"
"Nothing will ever stop us from being together, princess…that's for sure." He interrupted her, then kissed her gently. When their lips parted, Laurie murmured, "Happy Birthday, my love…and many more… My present to you is partly at home and here." She added, winking.
"Then what are we waiting for…let me take you home and you can give it to me…alone!" Rick offered, holding out his hand. Laurie took his fingers in hers as she whispered, "I'll get my jacket!
As husband and wife made a quiet departure, A.J. watched them leave with a wistful smile on his face. When he started to close the back door, he spotted a familiar figure in the Johnson's patio.
"Chief?" He whispered, then saw the older man beckon to him. A.J. heard Linda in back of him, and said, "Honey, it's the Chief…"
Going down the back steps, he stopped short of the familiar spirit. "Chief, is everything all right?"
"It is now, my son. Your children have chosen their own paths, let them have the space to grow. They will make a difference, I promise. You have passed your torch on to them, help them keep it alive." Chief Joseph's words came softly, then he smiled at Linda as she joined A.J..
"Be happy, my dear…..farewell."
Both husband and wife barely had time to nod at their friend before he turned and vanished into the moonlight.
"A.J., he came to see us…." Linda murmured, wiping her eyes. A.J. saw her actions and taking her hand, led her back inside. "What's wrong, Linny?"
"Nothing, darling. I just feel …..I miss him…but I've felt all along he's been there for us. Now I know…" Linda stopped as she saw Ron and Abby in the kitchen.
"Was that the Chief?" Abby asked, wonderingly, then smiled as Ron shook his head. "I've never seen him appear anywhere but the ranch….I wonder why he came."
"He just wanted to let us know that things are all right…" A.J. said, "and that our children have …wait a minute…" He looked at Linda, then back to Ron.
"He said that our children have chosen their own path, and that we passed our torch to them."
"Well, he got that right….Ricky finished first in his class, and he's going to be serving under Martin in my old office." Ron told him proudly.
"That's wonderful, Ron….thank you!" Linda beamed then hugged their friend.
"How did Ceci do?" A.J. suddenly remembered his oldest daughter had taken a makeup test the day before. At that Ron's face fell.
"Uh, sorry, A.J…..She didn't pass the exam…so the counselor talked with her, and well, she's going to switch to the civilian side of Family Services. I thought I'd let her know it was all set."
"That's good, Ron….Ceci's a great listener….I just know it'll be a great job for her." Linda said enthusiastically. Just then there was a knock on the front door, and the Johnsons and Simons came to the entry in time to see Rick and Laurie standing at the door, an embarrassed look on their faces.
"Okay, what'd you forget?" Abby asked, opening the door. Rick spoke first, grinning.
"Uh, we kind of forgot we had a gift for you, Ron…We were on the freeway when Laurie found it by her feet. So we decided to turn around and present it to you properly."
"Well, we'll accept, and we have a little something to "give" you." Ron said, looking at A.J.. The younger Simon chuckled, seeing Ceci and Ricky get up from the table and come towards them.
"Oh, yes….you two need to sit down to hear this!"