Deliverance

Thirteen


Tuesday Morning 9am


Frank's reaction when he found out that going home meant going to Bayport had been predictable. Initially, he had been pleased the doctors weren't making him stay any longer... right up until the moment he realized home hadn't meant Manhattan. First he got quiet, and Joe could practically see the wheels turning in his head. Then the arguing started.

What Joe found most disturbing wasn't the argument itself – he would have been worried if Frank hadn't argued with him – but rather its disjointed nature. During the hour-long discussion, Frank alternated between his normal cool logic, rage, and tears. The changes between the three happened almost instantaneously and really freaked Joe out. It had been a long time since he had seen his brother unable to control his emotions, and watching his brother's loss of control was disconcerting. Usually the problem went in the other direction; trying to get Frank to show emotion was somewhat akin to pulling teeth.

For his own sanity, Joe knew he needed to put a stop to the discussion. He cut across Frank's words. "You want to go home? Fine. Answer one question correctly, and I'll call Mom and tell her you're not coming."

Frank stopped in mid-rant, his eyes wary, his face lined and pale. "Really?"

"Really."

His brother's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What's the catch?"

"No catch." Joe swallowed, unsure what he wanted more, for Frank to answer the question correctly – which would mean he would be alone during the days – or for him not to. He leaned forward watching his brother's face intently. "What's your address?"

"My address? Twenty-three Elm Street." There was no hesitation, no uncertainty in Frank's voice.

"Not your apartment, 'bro. That's Mom and Dad's."

The triumph faded from Frank's face. "Right." His voice sounded bleak. "Hold on. I know this." Joe watched his brother concentrate, his eyes going distant as he struggled to remember the answer, then closing as he fell into an exhausted sleep, the information still out of reach.

Joe ran a hand over his face, then reached down to grab his crutches. Seeing Frank like this left him more shaken than he wanted to admit, but he knew he needed to calm down. Dr. Finley had said Frank could be released in the afternoon, and he had an errand to run before then.


Being back on Pocumtuck's campus felt strangely calming after the events of the last few days, and Joe found himself regretting that they weren't coming back. He had enjoyed both teaching more than he ever thought he would, and being with the kids made him think about what his and Kara's future might hold. An image flashed in his mind of Kara chasing after a small boy with blonde hair and brown eyes. Not that we've talked about kids. A small frown formed on his face. Or marriage, for that matter.

"Joe!" The voice broke him from his reverie. He looked around and saw Sarah jogging toward him, a bookbag sliding down her arm. "It is you. What are you doing here?"

He smiled at her. "I should be asking you the same question. I work here. At least I did. How about you?"

"Now, I work here." Her blue eyes danced as she spoke. "Since this is my second year here, and I know the kids, Headmaster asked me to take over as the fitness instructor. He wants me to stay on after I graduate."

"Are you going to do it?" He couldn't think of anyone more perfect for the job.

"I'm thinking about it." She bounced on the balls of her feet. "Having a job lined up before I graduate would be great. And since it comes with room and board, I can save my salary for grad school."

"Congratulations, Sarah. You'll be great."

"Thanks," she said, shifting the backpack back on to her shoulder. "I've got to head back to campus. I've got class in a bit, and I need to change. It was good to see you."

"You, too." Joe shifted on his crutches, watching as she walked away. "Sarah!" She turned back to look at him, a questioning look on her face. "Thank you. For everything." She waved once, then continued to her car.

He watched until she drove away, then made his way to the residence hall where he and Frank had been living. With the students in class, the hallway was quiet, deserted, and lonely. He stopped, noticing with alarm the door to their suite was cracked open. Slowly, he slunk against the wall, cursing the crutches that hampered his movements.

"If you're trying to sneak in without being seen, you're doing a lousy job." Ekaterina's voice came from inside the suite. "I could hear you from the second you opened the door." It was probably the most words he had ever heard her use at one time.

Joe used one of the crutches to push the door all the way open. Ekaterina sat on the couch, folding laundry – Frank's laundry from the look of it – into an open trunk. A second trunk sat by the television set, closed and locked. "What's going on here?"

Ekaterina looked at him, her expression clearly indicating her opinion of his intelligence. "They told us you were a detective." Her blue eyes moved back to the shirt in her hands. "Figure it out."

"You've packed up our belongings." He swung himself over to the couch and sat next to her. "Why? That's why I'm here."

She looked at the crutches then swept her eyes down to his wrapped ankle. "It would take you too long, and I can't move my things in until all yours are gone. The couch isn't that good for sleeping." Another shirt was added to the pile, followed by several pairs of socks. "Don't get any ideas about this being payback."

Joe nodded. "So noted. Can I ask a question?"

"You can ask."

"That was some move you used on that guy – Illiya? – the other night." He shifted to take the weight off his ankle. "Where'd you learn to do that?"

She snorted. "You realize you aren't enhancing your reputation here." The last of the laundry went into the trunk. "I was on the Russian Junior Judo team before..." Her expression hardened, and she slammed the trunk closed. "Before we moved to the US."

"You've obviously kept up with your training." Joe leaned forward. "And Illiya?"

"We used to spar together. He'll be graduating soon, and his visa will be up. He wants to stay in America, so he asked me to marry him." She let out a breath. "I told him no. He keeps asking. I keep telling him no." A small bitter smile formed on her lips. "Then I toss him to the ground. That part is almost enjoyable." She turned to face Joe, the smile gone. "Just because I told you this doesn't mean we're friends."

Joe's lips twitched. "No. Not friends. Got it." He reached for the crutches and lifted himself to a standing position. "I'll check the rooms to make sure you got everything."

Her eyes narrowed. "Everything has been packed. Don't you believe me?"

"I'm a detective." Joe grinned broadly. "I need to see evidence with my own eyes. Besides, Frank would kill me if anything of his got left behind."

"Whatever." She pushed herself off the couch, muttering something in Russian as she stood. "Make sure this stuff is gone when I get back." She swept out of the room, slamming the door behind her.


Headmaster Whitman was waiting for Joe in his office. "Are you sure you won't stay for lunch?"

Joe shook his head. "I can't. I have to get back to Frank, and I'm not sure it would be a good idea."

"For whom? The kids?" The man's expression showed surprise.

"For me. I might not be able to leave."

Whitman smiled, the surprise giving way to understanding. "It's hard to let go, isn't it?" Joe nodded. "I understand. I feel the same way every year at graduation. It's hard to know I won't see them every day again."

There was one thing Joe did need to know. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "How's Benj doing?"

"He's still with his parents." Joe's head jerked up, and the headmaster put up a hand to stop the question he could see forming. "He's coming back next week. The Gardners have decided to keep him enrolled." The man smiled. "Actually, I think Benj decided to stay enrolled and worked at them until they agreed. He didn't want to leave Sunny."

"Good." Joe let out a breath. "Is she all right?"

"She's fine. Kay was here when she returned." Whitman shook his head. "I don't think I'd ever seen her hug her daughter before. Not even at John's funeral." He put his hands down flat on his desk. "The miracle is that Sunny hugged her back." He shrugged, then lifted his right hand, holding it out to Joe. "Thank you for taking care of our students."

Joe took the man's hand and shook it, then turned to leave. When he got to the door, he turned back. "Headmaster, I still have some cameras here that I'll need to collect. When Frank is recovered, do you think we could make a trip up here to do that?"

The headmaster smiled. "Of course. We'll be happy to see you. All of us."


After getting the trunks in the car, Joe stopped for a moment to catch his breath and take one last look around. He heard the tapping of the cane before he heard the accented voice.

"Miller?"

Sighing, he turned toward the speaker.

"What do you want, Phillip? And it's Hardy, not Miller."

"Then it's true?"

"That we're detectives? Brothers? The good guys?" Joe's hands squeezed the handles of his crutches turning his knuckles red then white. "Yes. All of it."

Phillip's steps faltered, his face a study in misery. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I thought..."

"I know what you thought." Joe didn't even try to mask the anger in his voice. "You were wrong."

"Will he be all right?" Phillip's voice was a whisper.

Joe swallowed. "I hope so." A noise came from the path behind Phillip – the whirring noise of Melissa's wheelchair. As he watched, she raised a hand in greeting to him. He nodded back to her.

Phillip's head swiveled as the noise registered with him. "Lunch must be over. I must get to my class. The students will be waiting." He paused, turning his head back toward Joe. "Please give your brother my apologies. I was only trying to protect the students." His cane tapped on the ground as he turned to leave.

Joe swore under his breath. "Phillip." The man's head turned to the side. "I'll pass on the message."

Phillip bowed slightly then continued down the path.

When he and Melissa were no longer in sight, Joe got into the car. He had to get back to his brother.


Early November


On his third day home, Frank finally managed to get up and have breakfast with his family.

He had spent most of the first two days sleeping on the couch. Laura had taken one look at him as Joe and Kara helped him into the house and announced that stairs were out of the question. Initially, Frank hadn't been pleased to be out in one of the more public areas of the house, but after the first night's nightmares, he was glad to be farther away from his mother's sensitive ears.

Realizing it had been Roger who was behind the attempts on his life had broken the block on his memory, and now he was suffering from memory overload. The first few days following the attack, memories had started trickling back into his brain slowly; gradually they picked up speed, over time becoming a deluge. Awake, images, names, and events flooded his mind; asleep, he relived every traumatic event he had experienced over the last five years – the bombing of the comic book store, his captivity in Hansen's basement, Joe in hospitals with wounds of varying levels of severity, Anna motionless in the greenhouse, her words from the hospital.

As he hobbled into the kitchen that morning, he could feel the three sets of eyes watching his progress. Laura immediately jumped to her feet and pulled out a chair for him, while Fenton rose and got him a cup of coffee. Aunt Gertrude sat, watching with narrowed eyes as he seated himself in the chair, then handed him a plate of toast. "You're too thin," she said. "This afternoon I'll make some of those ginger cookies you're fond of. That will help."

Fenton threw her an amused look, then picked up his newspaper. "You always think they're too thin, Gertrude." He turned to Frank. "So, son, you've been asleep so much we haven't had time to talk, and your brother was a little short on details. What exactly..."

"We'll have plenty of time for that later," Laura interrupted, glaring at her husband. "He'll be here for at least another week. This is the first morning he's been able to join us. Let him eat his breakfast in peace, Fenton. You can talk to him about the case later." She laid a hand on her husband's shoulder, and Frank could see her mouth the words "If he's up for it."

Fenton nodded and ran his eyes over the front page of the paper to cover the motion. "Will we be seeing Anna any time in the near future? She should be done filming soon. Where was she? Paris?" He folded the newspaper and reached across the table for the butter. "I like that girl."

"You've liked all girls our sons brought home." Laura laughed and took the butter dish out of his hand. "They both have excellent taste in women." Her brow furrowed. "Although, now that I come to think of it, there were one or two that Joe... Well, he has Kara now, so it doesn't matter." All three adults looked at him expectantly.

Frank's throat went dry. "I don't think..." He looked down at the mug he held between his hands and let out a breath. "She..." He couldn't make himself say the words. Beside him, his mother's face softened, understanding and sympathy evident in her expression. He pressed his lips together and turned his head away, a telltale stinging in his eyes. Damn concussion,he thought, lifting a hand to rub at them. Get some control, Hardy.

There was the feeling of a hand on his shoulder, the scent of his mother's perfume as she leaned up against him. "I'm sorry, sweetie."

Aunt Gertrude sniffed. "Thought the girl had more gumption than that."

Frank pushed his chair away from the table, grabbing his cane as he stood. "I'm not really that hungry," he said, his voice leaden and toneless. "I think I'll go lie down again." He heard his father say something to his aunt in a harsh voice. The words were unintelligible, but the meaning became clear at her response.

"I would never hurt either of those boys, Fenton," he heard his aunt say as he lowered himself on the cushions, "but I'm also not going to censor my opinion. If she's let him go, she's a fool. Now, please pass the toast."


Joe sat at his desk, eyeing the pile of documents requiring his signature with trepidation. Initially he was tempted to sign them all without reading them but figured Chet would guess what happened if it took too short a time. With my luck one of them will have something to do with the one case Frank remembers.

His parents called every day to update him on his brother. Things were going about as well as Joe had expected. Frank was taciturn, unwilling to talk to anyone – even their mother – about what he was feeling, and was suffering from nightmares. On the plus side, his memory did appear to be returning. Their father had drawn on his vast investigative experience and his knowledge of his son to ask subtle questions about cases they had worked on since forming the agency and had reported Frank's answers jibed with what he himself had known about them.

About an hour into the stack, Joe stopped realizing something didn't look right on one of the final reports. Eyes still on the document, he picked up his phone. "Chet, can you bring me the Forrester file? I just want to double check something." Hanging up, he started reading the report again from the top. He heard the door opening and held out his left hand for the expected file. "That was fast. What, did you have it on top of your desk?"

"Mr. Hardy." The voice wasn't Chet's.

Joe closed his eyes, just managing to stifle the groan that threatened to escape from his lips. Like I need this right now. He let out a breath and opened his eyes. "Dr. Park. What can I do for you?" The question sounded unemotional and definitely uninterested. He figured that was the best he was going to be able to manage. At least I can tell Kara I was polite.

The older woman stood in front of his desk, looking at him as if he were a science experiment gone awry. Finally, she took the leather folder out from under her arm, pulled an envelope from one of its pockets, and placed it on his desk. "Your payment."

He stared at her for a moment before picking it up. He ripped the short end off and reached in with two fingers to pull the check out, his eyes widening at the amount. "This is more than our contract stated," he said, holding the paper out toward her.

"It will cover the unexpected medical expenses." She snapped the folder closed and tucked it back under her arm. "I understand your brother is recovering well."

"As well as can be expected." His patience was running thin. This woman really got on his nerves. "Good thing it wasn't Sunny the kidnapper was after, isn't it? Who knows what might have happened?"

A flash of irritation showed on her face. "You would have protected her. That is what you were hired to do."

"We were dealing with an amateur. Someone really good could have gotten past us. People – kids – could have died." Anger was starting to run through him like a flame.

She looked at him, her eyes cold. "No one did."

He jumped to his feet, his body physically unable to stay seated. "This time. Becauseyou got lucky. What about next time?" He was shouting now but didn't care. "'Cause somehow I don't think the North Koreans are going to stop trying for that nuke."

"There won't be a next time." Dr. Park's voice was calm and measured, which only infuriated him more.

"Really?" Sarcasm dripped from the word. "Exactly how do you plan to guarantee that?"

She stood like an elegantly dressed statue, looking at him as if were an unruly child badly in need of discipline. "By donating my father's papers to the Physics Department at MIT." A slight frown crossed her face. "Keeping my daughter safe is more important than anything, and if I have to give up my father's research to do that, I will. It would be foolish to place her life in jeopardy for selfish purposes. I am many things, Mr. Hardy, but a fool is not one of them."

Joe sank back in his chair, surprise and shock stealing his ability to remain standing. "That's good," he choked out. "I'm sure Sunny will appreciate..."

"And I am sure she will not," Dr. Park said, "but it doesn't matter. She is the only family I have left." She let out a breath. "Good day, Mr. Hardy. Give my best to your brother." Then she turned and walked back to the door.

Joe rolled his eyes and turned back to his paperwork. This almost looks good now, he thought.

"Mr. Hardy." Joe's head jerked up. Dr. Park was standing at the door, her back to him, one elegantly manicured hand hovering over the doorknob. "You are impetuous. You speak without thinking and allow your temper to get the better of you, and I honestly believe Kara would be better off with someone of a different temperament. Someone like your brother."

"Gee, thanks," Joe snapped. "Fortunately for me, what you think doesn't matter."

"No, it does not. It is what Kara thinks that matters, and she seems to think you are worth fighting for." Her fingers wrapped around the doorknob. "To that end, I have told Liam he should give you a chance. Use it well."

The door swung open and she walked out without having looked back. Joe sat open-mouthed, not able to believe what he had heard.

Chet walked in, a file folder in his hand. "Here you go. I figured it made more sense to wait until she left to bring it in." He peered at Joe, who was still staring at the door. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Joe swallowed. "I think I am."


Mid November


Frank was grateful when the days finally stopped blurring into each other. For the first week, alternating between exhaustion and pain, he had spent much of his time dozing, frequently closing his eyes for a moment and opening them later only to find several hours had passed. Now, the nightmares were diminishing, and he was more able to focus on what was going on around him.

It wasn't easy.

Between his still-aching head and slowly healing bones, his activities were limited, leaving him plenty of time to brood. Tony came by every day and sat with him for an hour or so, catching him up on Bayport news. After the first few tense minutes, he figured out someone – Joe or Chet most likely – had warned Tony against asking about Anna, and he was glad of it. Although he had started regaining some measure of control over his emotions, he wasn't positive he could hear her name without breaking down. Instead, Tony spent the visits filling Frank in on the doings of their high school friends who still lived in the area, several of whom had married and now had families. It was a welcome respite. He didn't have to search his memory to see if details were missing; he could just listen and relax.

Joe and Kara came on the weekends, sometimes bringing Chet and Marisol with them, and Biff stopped by once or twice when his work schedule allowed. These visits, while still welcome, served to underscore what he still had to regain. They did, however, prove to be useful distractions from the thoughts racing around in his head, mostly memories of Anna that ghosted around his dreams and left him shaken and heart sore. Sketching also helped, although each time he surfaced from the notebook Chet had left with him, he found most of the pictures were of Anna as well.

He had been there nearly two weeks and was standing in the living room, feeling alert for the first time in a long while, and deciding it was time to talk to his parents about going back to his apartment – while he now remembered his address and phone number, he knew it wasn't an idea his mother would approve of – when the doorbell rang. The unexpected noise startled him, jolting him from his thoughts.

"Can you get that, dear?" Laura's voice came from the kitchen. "Your father took your aunt to the library, and I'm up to my elbows in raw chicken."

Leaning heavily on his cane, he made his way to the door, growing annoyed when he found himself tired just from crossing the room. The sullen expression on his face changed to one of shock when he saw who their visitor was.

"Anna?"

She stood in the doorway, her raven hair pulled back from her face, a crimson-colored wrap around her shoulders that contrasted with her pale skin and accentuated her eyes.

The sight of her took his breath away.

Even with his memory returned, Frank was sure had never told her often enough how beautiful she was and how lucky he was to have found her. Now... It might not matter. He cleared his throat, trying to force his face not to show everything he was feeling. "Come in. Please."

"Thank you." She walked past him into the living room, her back straight. When she turned, he could tell the actress was in control; her expression was a carefully controlled mask. "How are you?"

He shrugged his shoulders, his breath hitching as a sharp pain stabbed through his collarbone. "I've been better. The recovery's slower than I would like."

"Frank, who...?" Laura entered the room, wiping her hands on a towel, freezing in place when she saw who it was. "Anna. Hello, dear." She nodded a greeting, her expression unreadable, then turned to her son. "Frank, I need to run to the store. I seem to be short a few ingredients for tonight's dinner. Do you need anything while I'm out?" He shook his head. "I'll be back in a little while." She grabbed a coat from the closet then headed back to the kitchen.

Frank waited until he heard the back door close, then took a deep breath and turned back to Anna. "Please. Sit down. Can I get you something to drink?"

After glancing at the cane in his hand and the sheets and blankets covering the sofa, she shook her head. "Thank you. No."

He waited a moment then slowly limped to the sofa and sat, feeling her eyes on every move he made. He swallowed. "How's the film going?"

"You remember that?" He was startled at how sad the tone of surprise in her voice made him feel. "We're done." She crossed the room and perched on the edge of the chair farthest away from him. Her eyes flickered from his face to the closed patio door leading to the back yard. "After I left..." She cleared her throat. "... the hospital, I went back to finish up. We got home yesterday."

"We?"

"Eric came back to New York with me." She still wasn't looking at him.

Alarm bells starting going off in his head. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath, a brief memory of the last conversation he had ever had with Callie fluttering through his mind. She's found someone else, as well. Two for two, Hardy, he thought, the words giving him a different type of pain. When he opened his eyes again, she was looking down at the rug. He pressed his lips together and nodded once. "I see."

They sat in silence for a few moments, then Anna stood. "I can't do this, I can't..."

"Anna, please..." He put up a hand to stop her words and turned his head away, not able to look at her as he spoke, his eyes suddenly hot. It's not her fault. I won't make this hard on her. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then looked up at her. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't mean..." He stopped, unable to continue.

Her head tilted to one side, the mask slipping, a look of panic forming. "Why are you apologizing?" Her voice rose with each word.

"For not being what you need." He spoke through gritted teeth.

She sat back down slowly, her breathing unsteady. He could feel her eyes on him. "Frank?" There was a tremor in her voice as she spoke his name. "What are you talking about?"

His head jerked up, causing lights to flash behind his eyes. "At the hospital you said you needed to think. Just now you said that Eric" – he choked out the name – "came home with you." He gulped, trying to gain some measure of control. "My hearing's fine; it's just my brain that's not working so well right now." He could hear the bitterness in the words but couldn't stop it from coming out. "I don't blame you. I understand."

"No. You don't." She stood again, her hands fisting into her wrap. "You interrupted me. What I was going to say was 'I can't stand this.'" She gestured at the distance between them. "Your job can be dangerous, can do this to you, and that terrifies me. But not having you in my life... That scares me more." She took a deep breath. "I'm not strong, but I'll try. Being apart from you hurts too much."

"You didn't come to say good-bye?" His voice was a stunned whisper.

"No."

"But... Eric?"

Anna's head tilted to the side. "His sister lives in Brooklyn. We traveled together."

Frank stared at her for a moment. "He didn't come home to be with you?"

"No. He's just a friend. And I needed a friend. He was the one who convinced me not to give up on you. On us." Her hands twisted together. "He told me not to do something I might regret later."

Relief flooded over him in waves, the sensation immediately followed by a hot burst of remorse. "Anna, please believe me. I didn't mean to hurt you. Everything just happened so fast."

"It's all right." Her arms wrapped around her torso, and Frank could see her lips trembling.

"No, it's not." He opened his arms, hoping she would come closer.

After a moment's hesitation, she crossed the room, stopping just before she reached him. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You won't." He reached up and pulled her down next to him, enfolding her in his arms, realizing in that moment just how close he had come to losing her. They sat in silence for a few minutes, Frank not wanting to speak until was sure he could do it without his voice cracking. "How did you find me?"

"I called Joe." Her voice was muffled by his sweatshirt. "He said..."

"No." He shifted her just far enough so he could see her face. "I meant when I was in the hospital."

Anna swallowed a few times before answering. "I kept calling your office, but all I got was voicemail." She grimaced, a look of frustration on her face. "I don't have Chet's cell, so finally, I gave up and called Marisol's salon. She told me where he was. And why." A breath. "I got on a computer and started running searches. When I saw..." A few tears slid down her cheeks, and she blinked hard several times. "When I saw the story..." She stopped, breathing in large gulps of air, and Frank knew she was editing the story so as not to cause him distress. "Eric found me. He packed my bag, got my plane ticket. He even called his brother to pick me up in Boston and drive me to Springfield. Then he informed Billy I was leaving and would be back when I got back."

Frank sat open-mouthed, listening.

"When I got to the hospital, Chet told me what had really happened." She took a few breaths. "Then he told me about your memory." More tears filled her eyes as she bowed her head. "I didn't know what to say, what to do." She looked away.

"Anna, I..." He shook his head in wonder. "You did all that for me? You're amazing."

"No. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and try to pretend it didn't happen. That you managed to survive..." She shuddered and closed her eyes. "I can't even think about it." When her eyes found his again, they were more calm. "The important thing is you're okay. We can build new memories."

"Wait." Frank swallowed. "You need to know. I did remember you." He disengaged her from his arms and reached out to grab his notebook from the table. He fumbled through the pile of drawings, pulling two from the stack and holding them out. "Even when I forgot everything else. I remembered you." He shook the papers in his hand, willing her to take them. "I did this one in the hospital."

Anna took them with shaking hands, then gasped. "Frank, they're beautiful."

"Only because you are." He took the drawings from her hands and placed them back on the table, then put his arms back around her. "Anna, I can't promise I'll never put you through this again. What Joe and I do... it can be dangerous."

She let out a bitter laugh. "You say that like something this bad happens with every case."

"Not every one," he said, "but if you stay around me long enough, chances are pretty good..." He stopped, feeling the tension in her shoulders.

She let out a long breath. "How long are you planning for me to be around?"

"Forever." The word sprang unbidden from his lips, and he felt her freeze again, this time tension radiating from her entire body.

"Frank, nothing in my life is forever. I don't even know what forever looks like." She moved away from him, her eyes were both sad and frightened. "My parents, my jobs, Pierre... Nothing."

"Then just as long as you want to." He stopped, this time considering his words. "I don't have a lot of experience with relationships, but I know I want you to be in my life." He reached out and laid a hand on her arm. "I just want to be with you. In whatever way you're comfortable with."

She sat for a long moment, then leaned against him again, one hand reaching up and ghosting over the fading bruises on his face. "This is comfortable."

"Good." He sat very still, holding his breath as she inched closer. When she stopped moving, he put his arms back around her. "How's this?", he asked, feeling relieved when she nodded and relaxed against him, holding his hand in both of hers.

He had no idea how long they sat there. He didn't remember leaning back against the cushions, Anna still cuddled against his chest, or falling asleep, until the sound of the front door opening awakened him. He heard Aunt Gertrude's voice saying, "Fenton, close your mouth. You'll let flies in." A car door slammed shut, then more words. "Yes, Laura, she's still here." A pause. "Well, see for yourself."

Frank blinked, trying to focus in the late afternoon sunlight, groaning at the way his muscles felt, feeling Anna shift out of his embrace. When his vision cleared, he saw his father on his way into the kitchen with a bottle of wine, his mother following him, her arms full of grocery bags. She gave them a gentle smile. "You'll stay for dinner, yes?" Anna nodded, her eyes wide.

Gertrude calmly took off her coat and hung it in the closet. As she turned to go upstairs, she stopped and looked at Anna, her expression stern and satisfied. "I knew you weren't a fool." Then she turned and slowly started climbing the stairs.

Anna's eyes widened. As the older woman disappeared, she leaned over and whispered, "What did she mean by that?"

Frank smiled at her. "It means she likes you.".

Anna's eyes were still on the stairs. "Is it all right that she scares me a little?"

"I'll tell you a secret. She scares all of us." He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. "You get used to it."

"If you say so."

Noises came from the kitchen. An oven door closing, dishes being placed on the table, the murmur of voices ending in soft laughter. A moment later, Fenton stuck his head into the room. "Your mother says dinner is in fifteen minutes." He smiled at them, the ducked back in the other room, the laughter picking up where it had left off.

Frank reached down for his cane and struggled to his feet. Once he was standing, he held out his hand to Anna. "Come on."

"Where?"

"The kitchen."

"Why?" Concern covered her face. "Your mother said we had fifteen minutes. You should rest."

He kept his hand outstretched. "You said you didn't know what forever looked like. I want to show you."

She sat for a moment, not moving, just looking at him. Then slowly, she reached her hand out towards his. Once their hands were connected, she threaded her fingers through his, stood, and together they walked into kitchen.

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