Sunday evening 5pm
Joe sat slumped on a couch in one of the hospital's small meeting rooms, his leg propped up on a chair, listening as Kara caught him up on the events of the day. Benj, Sunny, and Sarah were with the Gardners, Travis, and what seemed like a small battalion of state troopers in one of the hospital's larger conference rooms. The officers had taken in both Kara's badge and her expression as she gripped Joe's arm and had wisely decided to interview him later. Chet, knowing that Joe and Kara would want to be alone, muttered something about heading back into Frank's room in case he woke up.
"What do you mean, all things considered?" Dr. Finley had insisted on getting one of the doctors to take a look at Joe's ankle and had ordered him not to move until the x-rays came back. Truth be told, he wasn't planning on moving. With Kara curled up under his arm, both her hands locked onto one of his, the only thing that was going to move him now was a bomb exploding under the cushion. For the first time in months he felt whole. "This whole thing was a sting, right?" He pulled Kara closer to him, resting his chin on her head, breathing in the familiar scent of her shampoo.
He felt her tense in his arms. Before he could say anything, she twisted herself out of his grip and turned around so she could see his face. "Yes. And no."
"Explain." He could hear an edge starting in his voice and had to remind himself to tone it down. Whatever's going on here isn't Kara's fault.
Kara's shoulders tightened. "You're mad."
"I'm not mad... at least not at you." His left hand clenched into a fist. "I haven't seen Frank for... What? Four days? And when I finally locate him, I also find his college roommate – a guy who's supposedly been missing for the last five years – trying to suffocate him." He let out a frustrated breath, trying hard to lower his voice. "I just want to know what's going on."
She nodded, although he noticed she still seemed tense. "Did you get a good look at him while you were in there?"
"Roger? I was too busy trying to pound him."
"I meant Frank." Kara sighed when he shook his head. "You missed the bruises, then."
"Bruises?" He closed his eyes, trying to recall how his brother had looked when he had been in the room. The first time, his face had been hidden by the pillow. The second he'd been too busy focusing on the oxygen mask to notice anything wrong. "So the story was right? He was beaten?" A fierce anger welled up in his chest. And if it was Roger, I should have hit him harder.
"No." Kara reached out for his hand and took a deep breath. "As near as we can tell, he was pushed off the mountain."
"What?!" He jumped, the motion tweaking his ankle, pushing a stabbing pain up his leg. "Are you sure?"
"Pretty sure. The doctors said his injuries are consistent with what they've seen in other cases." She squeezed his hand gently, her eyes – brighter than usual – meeting his. "His GPS stopped transmitting. Travis and I traced it to the last known location. It took a while, but we found him." She put a hand up, stopping the question she knew he would ask. "And no. I have no idea how he survived the fall."
"How bad is he?" He sat, open-mouthed, as Kara listed Frank's injuries. "And he still pulled that stunt? Why? He's known Roger for years. He could have just told you..."
"No. He couldn't." She swallowed, and her eyes flickered away, a sure sign she hadn't shared everything with him.
"Why not?" He could hear the anger in his words but couldn't dampen it down.
"His memory's been affected."
"Affected," he repeated, his voice like cold steel. "Affected how?"
She cleared her throat. "According to Chet and Doctor Finley, things are coming back."
"Kara." The edge was back, and this time Joe did nothing to stop it.
"Retrograde amnesia." Her shoulders slumped, and again, Joe saw the dark circles under her eyes, could see how exhausted she was, and his anger dissipated like smoke. Whatever had happened wasn't her fault. "He lost five years. He didn't know what had happened. He didn't know where you were. He didn't know who I was." She paused, her breathing shaky. "I could see it in his eyes. He didn't recognize me at all." He could see the pain in her eyes, hear the disbelief in her voice. "And it scared the crap out of me because I'm to blame. I pushed you to take the case."
He reached out and pulled her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her hair. They stayed like that for several minutes, until he felt her relax against his chest. "No," he said, lifting her chin with one finger. "That was Frank with his 'how would you feel if something happened to her?' spiel. All you did was bring your aunt to us. If you remember, I wanted to say no." He raised an eyebrow at her. "How is the Dragon Lady, by the way? I noticed she's not here."
Kara choked out a laugh and gave him a watery smile. "How do you do that?"
"Unbalance me like that." She pushed the hair from his forehead and stroked his temple.
"It's a gift." He shrugged.
"You're not mad?"
Surprise coursed through his body. "At you? No. I'm going to need to have a serious talk with my older brother, though. If I hadn't shown up when I did..."
She put a hand over his lips and grimaced. "Don't."
"I know. Too close." Joe nodded. "My question's still valid, though. Where is dear, old Aunt Kay?"
"Last I heard she was on her way. As soon as I knew we had Sunny, I called her. She's probably upstairs with them now." Kara's face took on a pleading expression. "Give her a chance, Joe. She really was worried about her."
The snort left his nose before he could stop it. "Right."
"She was. Just like I was worried about you." Kara's head tilted to the side, and the look in her eyes was one Joe recognized. She reached her hands up to his his head, and...
A knock sounded. "Am I interrupting something?"
Joe looked up to see Chet standing in the doorway. Instantly he tensed. "Is Frank all right?"
"He's fine. The doctor came in to check on him so I thought I'd see how you were doing." Joe let out a relieved breath. Chet leaned against the door frame. "The Gardners stopped by." He paused, his eyes fixed on Joe's face. "They want to see you."
"They didn't say." Chet shrugged. "If I had to guess, I'd say they want to thank you. And possibly apologize."
Joe huffed out a breath. "No." His hands clenched into fists. "Their psycho son tried to kill my brother."
Chet's eyes flashed. "And if what I saw is accurate, their other son seems to worship the ground you walk on." He stood up straight, his voice taking on a note of steel. "How is he going to feel if you won't see him?"
"Benj is with them?" Sudden surprise loosened Joe's hands. "Why?"
Kara touched his arm. "It's been several hours. The troopers must be done taking their statements."
"So, what do I tell him?" Chet's voice made it clear what he felt the answer should be.
Joe swallowed, the emotions of the past few days finally catching up with him. He remembered Benj's fear when talking about his brother, the hope – No, the joy – in the boy's eyes when he had offered himself as an alternative. If I turn my back on him, I'm no better than Roger. "Send them in."
"Good choice." Chet nodded in approval. "Thank you for not making pull out the big guilt guns." He paused. "Because you know I would have." He leaned back against the door frame, deflating like a balloon. "He seems like a good kid."
"He is." Joe blinked hard and rubbed his eyes. "Thanks for reminding me."
"All part of the service," Chet said.
The weariness in his friend's voice worried Joe even more than the outward signs of exhaustion he was exhibiting. He looked up, trying to keep the concern he felt from showing on his face. "After you've passed on that message, you should go find a hotel room or something. You look like you could use some rest."
Chet raised an eyebrow at him. "Look, it's the pot calling the kettle black." Joe glared at him, all sympathy disappearing into indignation, as Chet stretched and snickered. "I'll sack out in Frank's room for a while. Just in case he wakes up and needs something. You can take over in the morning. I wouldn't mind getting home. Marisol's beginning to think I've forgotten about her." Then he turned and left.
Kara placed a hand on Joe's cheek. "You're lucky to have him."
"I know. I'm lucky to have you, too." He leaned over, placing his lips against her forehead, then drew her closer, tipped her chin up, and kissed her. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to have her in his arms, to slide his hands under the back of her shirt and on to her bare skin, to feel her moving against him... to have his head bounce against the couch's back cushion as she wriggled from his embrace, cell phone in her hand.
"Malone." She stood just out of reach, batting his hands away, as she squinted into space. "Tina, I can't... Can you say...? Tina?" There was a pause as her hand fell. "Damn."
"I'm dropping that thing in a sink full of water first chance I get." Joe's breathing was unsteady, his hands shaking. He wanted – no, needed, – to have her back in his arms. Now. "You know that don't you?"
"I'm still on duty, Joe," she said. "I have to call her back." She scowled at the phone. "And for the record? The first night you're off this case, I'm yanking the battery on it. That way I'll be sure we're not interrupted."
"I knew there was a reason I loved you." He indicated the door with his chin. "Go. Call her back, so we can get back to what we were doing." Once she was gone, he buried his face in his hands. With everything that had happened that day, it had slipped his mind it was Sunny they had been hired to protect, not Benj. Damn. And if Frank's out of commission...
"Mr. Hardy?" The voice from the door was tentative. He moved his hands to see who was speaking. Benj's mother stood in front of him, uncertainty radiating from her like a beacon. Now that she was close to him, he recognized her from the photos Benj had on the walls of his room. "Yes," her head nodding as she spoke, "Frank spoke of you often." When she said Frank's name, her eyes welled. "We... we wanted to thank you. For taking care of Benj. For giving him back his voice."
"And apologize." This time her husband spoke, his voice deeper but no less certain. Joe could see anguish and relief warring for control of his features. "We had no idea Roger..." His voice cracked. "That he would even consider hurting Frank..." He turned his head away, his jaw clenched tightly.
Benj reached out and took his father's hand, squeezing it tightly before dropping it. "Papa?" Peter Gardner looked down at the boy. "It will be all right, Papa. Joe got us here in time." He spoke with a faint French accent Joe hadn't noticed before, his voice sure and certain. "Frank will be okay." He gave Joe a look of complete confidence.
"That's the plan, buddy." Joe tried to force a smile, but only managed a halfhearted grimace. He continued talking, hoping the boy wouldn't notice. "Are you heading back to school?"
"Yes." Emily Gardner stepped back and put her arms around Benj's shoulders. "We want things to return to normal for him."
"Maman." He squirmed out from under her hands, a tone of complaint in his voice. This time the smile that touched Joe's lips was real as he remembered using that same tone of voice with his parents when he was that age. Benj gave his mother a warning glance, then turned back to Joe. "You're coming, too, yes?"
The smile froze in place. "Probably not."
Benj's face fell. "Why?"
"I'm going to need to stay here with Frank until he can be released."
"I know. But later." The boy didn't look convinced. "Term's not over."
"Benj, we're still on a case." Joe tried to keep his tone gentle. "And when we're done with this one, we have others." He let out a breath. "We're not really teachers." He watched as Benj stiffened, his jaw growing tight, the light in his eyes dimming. "That's not to say there won't be time at semester break for a visit." The boy's face lit up. "If it's okay with your folks, you can come to New York for a week and stay with me and Kara." He looked at the Gardners.
Emily shared a glance with her husband, then said, "That's nice of you, but we don't want you to feel obligated..."
"I want him to come," Joe interrupted. "I can't be much of a big brother to him if I don't get to see him." He heard Emily choke back a sob, and felt a momentary stab of guilt for whatever pain he might be inflicting on her. When she turned her head away, he looked to Peter. "I realize you don't know me, but you know Frank. Benj can stay at his place if that makes you more comfortable."
Peter Gardner put one arm around his wife's shoulders and the other on his son's. "We can talk about it."
"We'll talk." His voice was firm as he spoke to his son, his manner more assured than it had been. He turned to Joe. "Thank you."
A blue figure appeared in the doorway behind them. "Mr. Gardner?" A trooper stood at attention in the hallway.
Peter bent down to Benj. "It's time to go. Tell Joe goodbye." Benj lifted puppy dog eyes to his father. "For now."
Benj broke away from his parents, ran to the couch, and threw his arms around Joe. "I'll get my folks to invite your folks for Thanksgiving. We can work on them then," Joe whispered. "Okay?"
The boy straightened, pulling his hands close to his chest, his dark eyes glinting. /Can we go to that chocolate dessert place?/
Joe nodded, mouthing 'You bet,' before clearing his throat. "When they let Frank out, we'll stop by and see how you're doing. You be good, okay?"
Benj flashed a grin, then wiped his expression clear and winked. "I will. Bye, Joe." He walked back to his parents and waved as they left the room. Joe kept his eyes on him until he was no longer visible, then leaned forward and covered his face with his hands.
"Ready to go?" Kara's voice reached out to him. He looked up, blinking in the light until his eyes focused on her. She held a pair of beaten-up wooden crutches in one hand and something small that he couldn't quite make out in the other. "Dr. Finley said it's just a really bad sprain. And that you're lucky you didn't do more damage to it over the past few days." She turned the crutches so the rubber stopper balanced on the floor. "These are loaners. We can stop at a medical supply store tomorrow morning and get you something better." Despite her obvious exhaustion, there was a hint of a smile playing on her lips.
"That's all? I can go?" She nodded, the smile still evident. He narrowed his eyes. "What's in your other hand?"
"This?" She tossed it to him. It was a small, black plastic rectangle. "You're a smart boy, Detective. Try employing those great deductive powers of yours."
He knew he should know what it was, but he couldn't figure out where he had seen it before. He looked up at her and shrugged. "Some help here, Agent?"
The smile got bigger as Kara pulled her company cell phone from her pocket and showed him the empty slot where the battery had been. "That phone call? Tina works at the State Department." Joe sucked in a lungful of air, his eyes growing wide. "She just got word. The tests failed. The North Korean newscasters are reading it off the teleprompters as we speak." The phone went back in her pocket. "And I'm officially off-duty for the next forty-eight hours. So, unless you have other plans for the evening..."
Joe lunged for the crutches and stood, wobbling in place for a moment before getting his balance. "I just need to check in on Frank, and I'm yours 'til tomorrow morning."
Kara pulled his his face down to hers and kissed him, a serious kiss that made his heart pound and his vision go blurry. When she released him, he was breathing hard. "You have no idea how long I've been waiting to hear you say that."
Monday morning 2am
"Roger?!" Frank blinked several times in rapid succession. The man holding the gun on him was older-looking, with a beard and scar on his forehead, but the facial features and the green eyes were unmistakably those of his friend. He took a step forward, stopping when he heard an ominous click come from the gun.
"Well, well, well. Frank Hardy." Roger stood like a statue, the gun staying pointed at Frank's chest. "And the betrayals just keep coming." He chuckled, the sound humorless and cold. "Long time no see, roomie."
Frank lowered his hands. "What betrayals? My G-d, Roger, where have you been? I came back from that mid-term, and you were gone. The FBI came looking for you."
The hand with the gun shook slightly. "As if you don't know. You're here, aren't you?"
"I'm on a job." Frank took a step forward, holding his breath as he did. "But you know that, don't you?" He took another step. "You don't have to do this, Roger. I can help you. Whatever they're paying you isn't worth it."
"Paying me?" Roger shook his head in disbelief. "You really don't understand how this works, do you? Funny, given who you are."
Another two steps. Just keep him talking, Frank thought. He was now within feet of his former friend. "You're not working for the North Koreans?"
"No. What would they want with the runt?" The hand with the gun dropped a few inches. "Are the North Koreans the ones funding my so-called parents these days? I sure hope not. The ransom'll suck in that case."
"Ransom?" Frank shook his head, trying to force the conversation to make sense. "If you're not after Sunny, then..." He forced his mind back to his last year of college, back to Roger's complaints about his parents, about family. Air rushed from his lungs as the realization hit. "Benj. You're not after Sunny, you're after Benj." He looked up. "That was why your folks needed money. They were adopting Benj."
Roger snarled, his face suffused with hatred. "Don't. Adopting implies he's family. He's not. He's nothing." The hand holding the gun started shaking again. "And now my folks," he spit the word out, his voice full of venom, "have hired you to protect him. You were supposed to be my friend."
Frank took another step forward. He was now close enough to reach out and grab the gun in Roger's hand. "I am your friend. Put the gun down, Roger. Let me help you."
The gun shook as Roger looked at Frank, seeing for the first time how close he was. For the space of a heartbeat, Frank saw indecision in his roommate's face. Then Roger's expression hardened. "No. They chose him over me. They owe me." He cocked the gun. "Sorry, Frank, but you chose the wrong side in this one."
"Roger, please..." Frank put a pleading note in his voice and let his shoulders slump, feigning defeat, and watched as Roger's posture changed. The belief he had won was evident in his stance, and his hand relaxed ever-so-slightly.
Frank pounced, wresting the gun from Roger's grasp and throwing it to the side toward the edge of the cliff. Roger kicked out with a steel-toed boot, catching him square in the chest, cracking several of Frank's ribs, and leaving him gasping for air.
"Good try, roomie, but I've gotten better at this over the years." The green eyes narrowed and hardened, the final vestiges of the man Frank had known disappearing. He threw out a right hook that Frank just managed to avoid, but to do so he had to take a step back.
Ignoring the pain radiating from his chest, Frank kicked out, trying to push Roger's legs out from under him, hoping to send him to the rocky ground. He connected with Roger's right knee, succeeding only in pushing the man off-balance, but it was enough. He scrambled backwards, closer to the edge, trying to reach the gun before Roger did, reaching down behind him with one hand and cursing when he heard the metallic sound of the weapon bouncing against rocks on its way down the mountain.
Breathing hard, he stood, fists up, protecting his chest, looking at any and all options he had to get away from the cliff. The only one was through Roger. At least Joe got the kids away, he thought. Sorry, little brother.
Roger limped toward him, rage covering his face. "You might have been my friend once. Now you're just collateral damage."
Frank watched, waiting to see what his former friend would do. He knew the cracked ribs would lessen the power behind his punches and wanted to make every movement count. Roger pulled something small from his pocket that Frank couldn't see and lashed out at him. Automatically, Frank put his arms up, trying to ward off the blow, and stiffened as something attached itself to the skin on his wrist, his body jumping involuntarily as several million volts of electricity shot through him.
There was a sensation of falling, of air rushing past him. Through the vibrations shaking his body, he heard Roger's voice from far away. "Sorry it had to end this way, Frank." Then the shaking stopped and everything went dark.
He started awake and lay still for a moment – heart beating, breath coming in gasps – before opening his eyes. It was obviously night time; the world outside was dark, the lights in the room were down, and the noise from the hallway was subdued. He let out a shaky breath and tried to calm himself down, surprised that no alarms had gone off, that no one had come to check on him, that Chet wasn't...
"Frank?" The voice was whisper soft.
Anna's voice, he thought. I must still be dreaming. Because it's not possible. She's in... He concentrated for a moment, trying to remember what Chet had told him about her film, gritting his teeth and groaning when he couldn't. Damn.
"Frank, are you all right? Do you need anything?"
His head swiveled to the side, sending shooting pains through his neck and shoulders. A woman sat in the chair on the other side of the room, knees drawn up to her chest, long, dark hair falling like a curtain over her face, obscuring her features. Even with her face hidden, he knew her, the resemblance to the figure from his drawing was unmistakable. "Anna?" Frank closed his eyes and gently shook his head, trying to focus in the dim light. When he opened them, the figure was still there, the hair now pulled back from her face, her dark eyes wide and frightened.
"You..." she swallowed. "You know who I am? You remember me?" She spoke the words as if she were afraid of the answer.
"Yes." Her features relaxed. "Mostly," he qualified, needing to be honest with her, even thought he knew it might hurt her. He heard a noise, a sharp intake of breath. "I'm sorry. Some things are still a little fuzzy." He watched with concern as her head sank to her knees and held his breath as she trembled. When she lifted her head, he could see her eyes were wet with tears.
"When you didn't call Thursday night, I figured something had come up on the case." Her words were so soft he had to strain to hear them. "Then I didn't hear from you on Friday..." She wove a strand of long, black hair through her fingers, her eyes unfocused. "I knew something was wrong." Her hands fell, and her eyes turned toward him. "When I saw the newscast," she swallowed, "I thought you were going to die..." Her voice broke off.
Frank swore internally. "I'm sorry. I didn't think..."
She held up a hand to stop him. "Then I got here, and they told me about your injuries. And what happened... earlier." Anna's arms wrapped around her torso, as if she were trying to hold herself together.
"Anna, if I'd known it would worry you..."
"You would have done it anyway." The words were sharp, brittle. And true.
He bowed his head, seeing from the corner of his eye as Anna's head turned away. When she spoke again, it was to the door.
"I'm not Kara, Frank. I'm not strong like she is." She let out a shaky breath. "Even after what happened with Joe, I thought I could do this – be with you knowing this could happen – but seeing you like this... I don't know." Arms still held tightly against her body, she stood and walked to the door. "I'm sorry. I need time." There was a choked sob, then her hand reached out and grasped the doorknob. "I need to think." Before Frank could say anything, she was gone.
Tuesday morning 11am
When Joe got to the hospital that morning, smiling and relaxed after his extended 'reunion' with Kara, he found Chet waiting for him in the hall outside of Frank's room, his expression bleak. Joe's stomach clenched. "What happened? Is he all right? Why didn't you call me?"
"He's fine," Chet said. "Physically."
Joe's good mood evaporated. "What the hell does that mean?"
Chet sighed. "Anna was here."
"Anna?!" Joe tilted backwards on his crutches. "How did she know where...?" He paused, Chet's exact wording catching up with him. "Was?"
"She stayed for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. She completely reamed me out. She wasn't very happy." Chet shook his head, disbelief written all over his face. "And less so when she left." He let out a breath. "It looked like she was crying."
"Pretty much, yes."
Joe indicated Frank's room with his chin. "Has he said anything about it?"
Chet raised his eyebrows. "Robot Man? No." His expression grew more serious. "Actually, he hasn't said much of anything at all. He's just staring out the window. It's eerily reminiscent of... Well, you know." Joe winced. Chet cleared his throat, grabbing his attention back. "Oh, and your mom called."
"What? How did she...?" He leaned into the crutches.
"The Amber Alert went regional. New England, New Jersey... New York." Joe watched as his friend sagged against the wall. "Because of it, the story about the beating got picked up as well. She recognized your aliases from the last time. She handled the news pretty well. She wants you to bring Frank home when he gets released."
"He's going to love that," Joe said, rubbing his forehead with one hand.
Chet shrugged. "I'm just passing on the message." He turned his head and looked at Frank's door. "It's probably not a bad idea, though. He's going to need someone around to take care of him for the next couple of weeks, and if Anna's not in the picture..." He wiped his hand across his eyes.
Joe nodded. "You're right." He gave Chet a long look. "You look done in. Why don't you go find a room somewhere and sleep until tomorrow. Then go home. I can take over from here. Besides," he flashed a brief smile, "I don't want Marisol coming after me with a baseball bat."
Chet smiled back. "Thanks. You're probably safe, though. She likes you." He pushed himself off the wall. "Call me if you need anything. I can be back in a couple of hours."
"I'll be fine." He watched his friend start down the hall. "And thank you." Chet put up a hand and waved. He stood in front of the door for a moment, then took a deep breath and entered the room, blanching slightly at what he saw.
Frank lay still in the bed, his head turned toward the window, his eyes staring at nothing, his face blank and expressionless. For a moment, Joe thought he was going to throw up; the image was too similar to the last time Frank had been in a hospital bed. He clenched his teeth and breathed in through his nose, trying to keep his breakfast where it belonged. After a minute or two he was able to relax enough to talk.
"How you doing, 'bro?"
To his relief, Frank turned and looked at him. "I want to go home." He sounded like a petulant five-year-old.
Joe gripped the handles of his crutches and counted to ten. I need to cut him some slack, he thought. If she broke up with him... He shook his head, not wanting to consider what it would be like dealing with his brother's recovery if that had happened. Frank wasn't the best patient to start with, and if he was hurting in other ways... It'll be like having a ticking time bomb on our hands.
"Not yet. The docs want to give you another day or two just to be safe."
"I'm fine, and we have a case we're working on." Frank growled out the words.
"No, you're not, and no, we don't." Joe noted with satisfaction that this attracted his brother's attention. He swung himself over to the chair by Frank's bed and told him of Kara's call from the State Department. "So, it looks like we're off the hook. Sunny's safe..." A look of confusion appeared on Frank's face. "The girl we were hired to protect?" Relief filtered through him when Frank nodded. "Anyway," he continued, "once you're free to go, we still need to stop at the school and get our things."
Frank turned back to the window. For a long minute, he just sat staring, then he purposefully closed his eyes, as if he didn't want to see Joe's face. "Chet told you?" His voice was quiet, almost matter-of-fact, but Joe could hear the pain underlying the words.
"Yeah." Joe could feel his face burning. "Do you think...?"
"She'll be back?" A pause. "I don't know." He opened his eyes, and Joe could see the anguish in them. "I think I screwed up."
Joe sat back, blown away by the admission. Frank never admitted to being wrong. He swallowed. "I'm here if you need me. You know that, right?"
"I know." Frank took a deep breath and turned back to the window. "I know."