"Frank, have you got a minute?"
The voice was female, light and shy, and it dragged Frank from the review journals he had been immersed in and were spread all over the couch. Selecting books for a diverse group of students was proving to be more difficult – and much more interesting – than he had anticipated.
He lifted his head to see Melissa Chang in the doorway. "Uh, Melissa. Yeah. Come in. Please." He stood and moved a pile of Joe's laundry out of the way so she could maneuver her wheelchair into the living room. "Um. What can I do for you?" He sat back down, readjusting his glasses as he did so, and waited for her to talk.
She mirrored his movement, lifting and resettling her own glasses, then smiled at him. "I wanted to thank you." Frank tilted his head to the side, indicating he didn't understand her. "Your book group. The discussions in my Junior/Senior literature class have become much more... lively... since your group started."
Frank looked down at the floor, one hand rubbing the ear with his hearing aid. Truthfully, he had started the group in self-defense. Sunny and several of the other upperclass girls had taken to spending their free periods in the media center, ostensibly doing work, but mostly just hanging around, watching him. It had gotten to the point that Joe had taken to teasing him about his harem. He hadn't wanted to tell Sunny to leave – having her in the library was one way of keeping an eye on her – but was definitely feeling the need to engage her in another way.
"Some of the boys were in the media center complaining about the reading list," he muttered. "I wanted to show them how wonderful Austen could be." He shrugged. "I offered to show them the Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility so we could compare it to the book, and most of the girls crashed the evening. It sort of ballooned from there."
"Whatever you're doing keep it up. Even the boys are paying more attention now." A smile brightened Melissa's face. "And truthfully, I love that movie. It's one of the few I've seen that keeps the spirit of the book without getting..." she broke off, considering her words.
Her smile grew wider. "I was thinking 'boring,'" she admitted. "Your word choice is more tactful." She wheeled her chair farther into the room. "How are you liking Pocumtuck?"
"I'm enjoying it here," Frank said. And he meant it. Working with the students was surprisingly gratifying, and making sure the library was organized with all the texts accessible to the students satisfied the anal-retentive part of him that liked to bring order out of chaos. "And you?"
"I love it here." A wistful expression covered her face. "I wish I'd been able to go to a school like this. It would have made growing up a lot easier." She turned her gaze toward the window. "The facilities are amazing. These kids are so lucky."
"What was your school like?"
Melissa wrinkled her nose. "I grew up in Chicago. Public school the whole way. My folks wouldn't have had the money for something like this."
Interesting, Frank thought. "What about college?"
"Illinois State University. English." She laughed, her cheeks turning a delicate shade of pink. "Well, of course, English."
Frank cleared his throat, and started straightening up his papers. "Is that where you met Phillip?"
Melissa nodded. "He was in the school of Information Technology doing his master's. His thesis was on a new type of more sophisticated voice-recognition software. He and some of his classmates started a business after graduation."
"What, um, brought you here?"
Her face fell. "The economy. The business failed." A bitter laugh escaped her lips. "Between what we owed on the business and our student loans, working somewhere that provided room and board started looking extremely attractive." She sighed. "I don't think Phillip is very happy, but I like it here." A loud beeping noise came from the bag on the back of her chair. "Goodness, is it four already? I told Phillip I'd meet him for some tea. Anyway, thank you again."
Frank listened as her chair rolled down the hall and out of the pod. As the outside door closed, he let out a long breath. They're in debt. Interesting. I wonder just how far Phillip's willing to go to erase that debt.
For Joe, the school year settled quickly into a routine. With the exception of Ekaterina, the other teachers were friendly and helpful, the quietness of the area grew much more appealing, and the kids were great. Trying to come up with physical fitness routines that all of them could do despite their various disabilities challenged him in ways he hadn't considered and kept him awake several nights running when he ran out of ideas. Fortunately, on his third week, he found he had inherited a student intern from the University of Massachusetts, a twenty-year-old sport management major named Sarah with short, blonde hair that she kept in two tiny ponytails on either side of her head, pale blue eyes the color of a summer sky, and extremely impressive biceps. The kids adored her, and she was able to train with them in ways that Joe Miller couldn't due to his heart condition. My heart condition, Joe had to keep reminding himself.
His original estimation of Sunny had been correct; she was a runner, and she spent much of her time running away from him. Her initial protective stance towards Frank had settled into a noticeable crush, and that, combined with her frustration at being edged out as Benj's protector, ensured her attitude toward Joe was only ever barely civil. While it made keeping an eye on her difficult at times, he found a perverse enjoyment in popping up at odd times, surprising and annoying her. It was almost as much fun pushing her buttons as it was pushing Frank's. He made himself behave most of the time, though, as he knew he couldn't push her too far away.
Walking toward the library after yet another dinner Frank had missed, Joe frowned. If he was honest with himself, his brother was worrying him. Frank seemed to be settling in, but there was something off, something Joe couldn't quite put his finger on. He had spent a few days fishing for news of Frank's trip, but had finally given up as his brother somehow managed to change the subject each time the word 'Paris' came up in conversation. At first he thought his brother must be suffering from jet lag or was maybe coming down with a cold or something, but as the weeks passed and Frank spent evenings cataloging books for the students and extensive weekend hours playing complex role-playing games with them, he began to think his brother was not only avoiding him but was hiding something.
This impression was reinforced by Frank's attitude toward the tabloid magazines the kids started bringing in featuring stories about movie and television stars, generally featuring pictures of Anna and her co-stars prominently on the front covers. Each time he saw a student with one, Joe saw his eyes flash with a look less characteristic of Frank Tennison and more like Frank Hardy, and as the headlines surrounding Anna's movie became more prominent and even more outlandish, he watched Frank's expression turn stormy when he thought no one could see.
Now, as he pushed open the door to the media center, he found his brother standing in front of some books scattered on a table, staring moodily into space, his brown eyes looking like agates behind the dark frames of his glasses.
Joe shook his head. Frank hadn't even heard him enter the room. "Okay, I've had about enough of this." Frank jumped at the sudden sound in the silence. "What happened in Paris?"
Frank glared through his glasses. "I told you. Nothing. Anna said..."
"Yeah, I know, she said 'hi.' You've been amazingly close-mouthed about the whole trip. Even for you." Joe could hear the edge in his voice. "Save some time, and just tell me what happened so we can go back to our regularly scheduled evening, okay?" Frank ignored him, turning away and reaching for the books. He put out a hand and clamped down on his brother's arm. "Frank. What happened?"
"Nothing." The word came from between clenched teeth. Frank wrenched his arm from Joe's grasp, grabbed the books, and turned toward wheeled cart on the other side of the room.
"You know," Joe could feel anger rising in his gut, "contrary to popular belief, I'm not an idiot. The only thing we've talked about since you've been back is this case, and when you're not with the kids or doing your bumbling librarian routine with the staff, you've got about as much personality as a thundercloud." He took a breath to steady his voice and pulled out his phone. "So, either you're going to tell me what happened in Paris, or I'm calling Phil to ask him."
"Phil?" Frank whirled around to face his brother, the books still in his arms. "Why Phil?"
Joe rolled his eyes. "You must be talking to someone – even you couldn't go this long without telling somebody what happened – and you're sure as hell not talking to me. I'd call Anna, but I don't have her number in this phone. Phil's number I have memorized."
For the first time in several weeks, the hard look in Frank's eyes softened. He looked down. "Phil doesn't know anything, and before you ask, neither does Chet."
Joe picked up a pencil from the table and started twirling it around his fingers, his anger dampening down but still simmering. "Okay, then. I'm waiting. What happened? Did you guys have a fight?" He found that hard to believe, but something had to be behind Frank's sullenness.
"I told you. Nothing." Frank turned away from Joe's look of exasperation and started sorting books onto the cart. "I barely saw her, all right? The film's running over budget and behind schedule. I did some sight-seeing – alone – and spent the evenings watching them re-shoot scenes. The one afternoon she wasn't working, we ran into one of the other actors, and he ended up joining us for dinner."
The pencil stilled as Joe's eyes widened in shock. "He crashed your date? Not cool. I'm surprised you didn't tell him where to go."
Frank let out a breath. "It wasn't a date, we were just grabbing something to bring back to her place for dinner before yet another night of filming. He'd just found out rather publicly that his girlfriend had dumped him for someone else." His voice took on a wooden tone. "He needed a friend. Apparently, he considers Anna a friend."
Joe's eyes narrowed. "His girlfriend..." A headline from the gossip magazine he had confiscated from Anala in gym class the other day suddenly flared in his mind. "Eric Michaels?" He whistled. "He's a good-looking guy."
"Of course he is. He's a movie star." Frank's voice was devoid of emotion, his hands still mechanically sorting books. "Just like she is." His voice dropped to a near-whisper.
"And you don't trust her?" Joe couldn't keep the note of disbelief out of his voice. Anyone who saw Frank and Anna together could see how much they belonged that way, how crazy she was about him and just how much Frank adored her. With Anna, Joe saw a side of his older brother he hadn't seen in years, someone who laughed for no reason and didn't always have his face stuck in a book or a computer program.
"What? No. Of course, I trust her." Frank looked up, a book clutched in his hand, and Joe saw something unexpected in his brown eyes. Something he had rarely ever seen there – uncertainty. "It's me."
"You lost me on that one, 'bro. You don't trust yourself? What you're going to cheat on her? With who? Ekaterina?" Frank's jaw clenched, and Joe backed away a few feet. "I'm joking. You lost me. Rather than glare at me, why don't you just explain?"
Frank's eyes grew distant, the book in his hand forgotten. "She could be with anyone..." His voice trailed off.
"Yeah, she could. And she chose you." Joe tilted his head to one side, understanding flooding through his brain. "And you don't get it." A broad grin covered his face. "Wow, you really are human. I was beginning to wonder."
"I beg your pardon?" Frank's eyes hardened and his voice held an icy edge.
Joe took another step back, his hands held out in front of him. "That was a compliment." He waited for a moment for his older brother's expression to clear. "We all think that." Frank raised an eyebrow, his knuckles turning white as pressure increased on the book. Joe gulped and held up one finger. "Badly worded. Let me try again. I didn't mean about you being human. We all wonder why they choose us." He laughed quietly. "I mean, would you have ever thought Kara would be interested in me?" Frank stared at him for a moment, then shook his head, his shoulders relaxing into something like Tennison's usual slump. Joe let out a relieved breath. "Good, now why don't you put the book down before you punch your fingers through the binding."
"F.. Frank, is everything okay? You didn't come to d.. dinner." Sunny's voice came from the doorway, and Joe could see she held a covered plate in her hand.
Joe watched as Frank struggled to push his feelings aside and take on Tennison's mannerisms again. "Sure... I'm fine," he finally stammered. "Do you, um, need something?"
Sunny marched up to Joe, pointing a finger at him. "Wh.. what are you d.. doing here?" Her eyes flickered to Frank's somewhat shell-shocked expression. "What d.. did you d.. do to him?"
"Nothing." Joe opened his hands and put on an expression of complete innocence. "Mr. Tennison and I were just having a discussion." He flashed an impudent grin at her. "I gave him something to think about." He turned to the side, locking his eyes onto Frank's. "We'll continue this later."
Frank gave him a reluctant nod. "Sure. Later." The tone in his voice indicated his brain was moving a hundred miles a minute, working on deciphering what he had just heard.
Joe smiled as he left, wishing he had hooked the library into his surveillance system. The next few minutes were likely to be very interesting, and he was sorry to have to miss it.
Convincing Sunny to leave had been almost impossible. The turmoil in Frank's mind left him barely able to complete a coherent sentence, and once or twice he had nearly fallen out of character trying to order her out, but finally he managed to make her believe he had work to do that couldn't wait which was why he seemed so scattered. Once she was gone, he settled in to catalog the boxes of new books that had come in that day. If he left too soon, he knew she would be waiting in the dorm's common area to interrogate him, and once she finished with him, Joe would be sitting in their suite not-so-patiently awaiting his turn. Frank wasn't ready to face either of them. Joe's words had both reassured and unsettled him, and he needed more time to process the information, to get his emotions back under control.
He started working on the pile of books, the rhythm of the copy cataloging process calming him while leaving his mind free to think until a sound from the hall attracted his attention. The tapping of a cane on the tiles alerted him that someone else was in the building. He glanced up at the clock on the wall, realizing with a start it was nearly eleven o'clock at night.
The footsteps passed the library's entrance, then stopped. Frank lifted his head, waiting for the next sound. The only things past the library's entrance were the janitor's supply closet and the network server room, and the chances were that someone who needed a cane wasn't planning on spending time in either of those locations at this time of night. He waited, eyes trained on the door, and heard the tapping start again as the person turned around, then stop right in front of his door.
It wouldn't be a student – Too late for them to be out. It's past curfew. – so that left three possible visitors. Claire Higgins, one of the reading instructors and Ekaterina's co-house parent, Headmaster Whitman's wife Elaine who was legally blind, and Phillip Chang. And are they looking for a book, or for me? He dropped his head back down over the computer keyboard as the door creaked open.
"Tennison?" The voice was soft in tone, male, and lightly accented. Phillip's voice. Frank kept still, his head bent down, and watched from over the top of his glasses as Phillip moved tentatively through the room. The computer's hard drive whirred, and Phillip's head turned toward the noise. "Tennison, are you here?" This time he spoke louder, his voice echoing slightly off the shelves.
Frank jumped as if startled, knocking a small stack of books to the floor. "Phillip?" An earsplitting electronic whine split the air. "Ow. Hold on." Wincing slightly, he clapped his left hand to his head and made an adjustment to his hearing aid. "Sorry. Um. What can I do for you?"
Phillip's face held an expression of contempt. "You can drop the act."
"What.. what act?" Frank stooped down and picked up the books, his mind working furiously. "I.. I don't know what.. what you mean."
"Yes, you do." Phillip's voice was hard and cold. "Does the name Derek Peterson mean anything to you?"
Frank froze. Derek had been one of the other hackers working for Edward Hansen, the one whose sudden disappearance had resulted in Frank's capture the last time he had used the Tennison identity. Slowly he raised himself to a standing position, placing the books on the table with an audible thud. "No," he said, working hard to keep his voice even with the lie. "Is..," he cleared his throat, "is he a student here? I haven't, um, quite learned all their names yet."
The computer science teacher remained still, the lights in the room reflecting off his sunglasses, and Frank found himself wondering if he really was blind, or if he was playing a part as well. "He was my roommate in college, my first friend in this country."
Frank's hand involuntarily curled into a fist. With a conscious effort, he relaxed it and laid it on the stack of books. "Was? What, um, what happened to him?"
"I don't know. He disappeared." There was genuine sorrow underscoring the anger in Phillip's voice. "It was several years ago. But in our last few conversations your name was mentioned. Several times." He dragged his cane across the floor, gripping it tightly in his hand. "I have no illusions about my friend, Tennison. I know not all of his endeavors were above-board, but he was a good man. A good friend. And he didn't trust you." There was a pause. "Neither do I."
"Don't." Phillip put up a hand to stop Frank's words. "I have no proof that you aren't what you say you are. I won't go to Headmaster with my suspicions. Yet. But I will be monitoring you, paying very close attention to what you do, especially around the students. You may have fooled everyone else here, but I know. You're dangerous."
Frank let out a breath. "I'm no danger to the students. I give you my word."
"We'll see." The cane started tapping as Phillip moved away. "And, Tennison? One more thing." With one hand on the door, he turned his head slightly to the right. "Stay away from my wife."
The door thumped closed behind him, and Frank stood, listening as the tapping sound disappeared down the hall. He let out a long breath, took off his glasses, and rubbed his forehead. "Damn."
"Joe, wake up."
"Mmph." Joe cracked open an eye. Light from the living room cast an odd glow on the room, and he squinted against the brightness to look at his clock. Two in the morning. He huffed out a breath. "Go away. I'm in the middle of a great dream. Kara in a bikini. Mostly..." As he eyes started to drift shut again, the pillow suddenly disappeared from the bed, forcing his head to thump down on the mattress and his eyes to fly open. "Hey!"
"We've got problems." Frank's voice was quiet.
"Is Benj having another nightmare? I didn't hear anything." There had been a couple since the first night, and each time he had woken as soon as the wailing had started. Headmaster Whitman had shown him the boy's file, but information about his background was nearly non-existent, limited to his parents' names and that he'd been homeschooled until a year ago, having lived in a surprising number of exotic locations before coming to Pocumtuck. Given that Benj's nightmares caused him to scream in his sleep, his inability to speak seemed to stem from some sort of psychological trauma in his past, but Joe hadn't been able to get him to open up about the cause.
Frank shook his head, his expression grim.
"Then what is it?" Joe rubbed his eyes and looked at his brother. "Why are you still dressed? And give me back my pillow."
"I've been checking the cameras, monitoring the feed." Joe could see his brother's eyes held a worried look. Frank pulled off his glasses and ran a hand over his forehead. "My cover's been compromised."
"What?!" Joe sprang into a sitting position, now wide awake.
"Partially, at least." Frank sat heavily on the side of Joe's bed. "It's Phillip." Shaking his head, he relayed the computer science teacher's visit to the media center. "He really thinks I'm Frank Tennison, computer hacker."
Joe's mouth fell open. "What about me?"
"He didn't say anything about you." Frank's lips pressed together in a hard line, his expression bleak.
"Did you know this Peterson guy?"
In the dim light, Joe saw his brother's hands curl into fists, his head turn away. "He was the other programmer working on Hansen's 'project.'" Frank took a deep breath before continuing. "When he took off, he left Hansen a message implying he wasn't working alone."
"So that's why...?" He didn't want to finish the question.
Frank nodded. "I never really gave him another thought..."
"No reason you should have." Joe's voice rose. "He sold you out. Hansen could have killed you, and he wouldn't have batted an eye." He watched as Frank's jaw tightened and knew he needed to change the subject, to find a way to distract his brother. "So, what do we do?"
"We need to put some distance between us."
Joe raised an eyebrow. "More distance? The kids already think I have it out for you."
Frank gave him a twisted smile. "We need to ramp it up a bit. I have an idea how we can do that. It'll involve a bit more acting than you usually do."
"Bring it on, 'bro. You're not the only one who can pretend to be someone else." He listened intently as Frank outlined his plan, nodding his head when his brother finished talking.
"Think you're up for it?"
Joe nodded. "I'll manage." He forced himself to sound confident.
"Good." Frank stood, and stretched. "We can do it at breakfast. I'm going to turn in. See if I can get a little sleep before we have to get up again."
"Sounds good." Joe grabbed the pillow back and punched it into shape. "I think I'll see if I can find that dream again. Kara was looking good in the bottom half of that bikini."
Frank closed his eyes and sighed. "Way too much information, little brother."
Joe lay back down and rolled over, closing his eyes and trying to get back to sleep. After a minute, he turned over, his senses telling him he was being watched. "What?"
"Yeah, uh, thanks for earlier." Frank's voice was nearly a whisper. He paused, moving into the shadows so he couldn't be seen. "This whole relationship thing? I'm not used to it yet." The uncertainty was back in his voice. "I don't want to screw it up. Let me know if I seem to be going off the deep end, okay?"
"Any time, 'bro." A yawn nearly split Joe's face. "Now go away. I have this really good dream to get back to." He could feel Frank roll his eyes as the door shut with a quiet click. Joe smiled. It was good to have his brother back.
Breakfast the next morning was tense. No matter how many times Joe had punched his pillow, he hadn't been able to fall back asleep. Instead, he had lain awake the rest of the night, his mind running through Frank's plan, only slipping into an uneasy doze shortly before his alarm went off. He crawled out of bed feeling sandy-eyed, irritable, and a whole lot less confident in his ability to carry out his end of Frank's plan than he had tried to sound at two in the morning.
What was I thinking? He closed his eyes, his head sinking onto the open palm of his left hand. A tentative tug on his sleeve forced his head back up.
/Your corn flakes are getting soggy./ Benj indicated the bowl on the table in front of them with his chin. /You should eat them before they turn to mush. They're nasty that way./ He peered at Joe, his dark eyes bright. /You okay? You don't look so good./
Here we go, Joe thought. Aloud he said, "Just tired. I didn't sleep too good last night." He rubbed his left shoulder absently.
Benj sat in the chair next to him and leaned his head against Joe's arm for a moment. /You want me to get Kathy?/
Kathy Richards was the campus doctor. With Pocumtuck's population, simply having a nurse was insufficient. Joe looked around. Kathy wasn't in the dining hall. Good. He forced a reassuring look on his face while shaking his head. "Nah, I'm good. I don't want to waste her time when all I need is a good night's sleep." He patted Benj on the head. "I'll be fine tomorrow." A huge yawn broke off his words. "Or later this afternoon. I think I'll let Sarah take this morning's classes. I'm going to head back to the house and sneak in a nap." His hand started moving back toward his shoulder, but he caught it and lowered it to his knee. "Go back to your seat, and eat your breakfast, buddy. Ekaterina'll have my head if you zone out in class because you're hungry."
Benj laughed silently as he moved down the table. /She sure would./
From the corner of his eye, Joe saw Frank enter the dining hall, grab a tray, and start filling it with breakfast foods. Yet another piercing whistle filled the room, sending everyone's eyes toward his brother, who turned away, red-faced.
Joe swallowed. There's my signal, he thought. He shoved a spoonful of cereal in his mouth, grimaced at the sodden texture, then raised his eyebrows at Benj. "You were right. I'm tossing this. I'll get something else after my nap."
The boy shot him a look that clearly said, "I told you so," and went back to his stack of pancakes.
Hands shaking slightly, Joe rose from the table and started walking slowly to the clean up area. Halfway there, he stopped and stretched his left arm out to the side, closing his eyes as he did so. The annoying whine of Frank's hearing aid sounded closer this time. As he clapped a hand to his head to block out the noise, a searing heat spread over his chest, followed by the sound of dishes and silverware falling to the floor. Air whooshed from his lungs as his eyes flew open, and he stood frozen in place, his chest burning from the spilled food and coffee.
Frank stood in front of him, an empty tray in his hand, staring at him with horror-filled eyes. "Oh, no. No, no, no." The tray fell to the ground with a loud clatter as Frank ineffectually tried to dab at Joe's chest with a sodden and soggy napkin. "I'm so, so, so..."
Joe pushed his brother's hand away. "What the hell, Tennison? What is it about dumping things on me?"
"I'm sorry." Frank reddened. "I didn't, uh, didn't mean..."
"You're a menace." Joe's voice carried through the dining hall. Frank flinched. "Just get away from me."
"L.. leave him al.. lone!" Sunny's voice rang out from the end of their table. "He d.. didn't d.. do it on p.. purpose. Y.. you sh.. should have b.. been w.. watching."
Her voice broke off as Joe swayed, then doubled over, grabbing at his left arm and gasping. He watched as her almond-shaped eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open. A gasp escaped her lips as he hit the floor.
As Sunny started yelling, Frank caught his Joe's eyes, and gave him a barely perceptible nod. Hands fluttering nervously, he watched as Joe bent in half, his right arm reaching across his chest to clutch his left arm, before collapsing.
For a few agonizing moments, Frank waited for Joe to continue their act, his heart racing as Joe lay seemingly unresponsive on the floor. Was there really something wrong? Come on, little brother. Enough is enough already. He sank to his knees, forcing himself to keep his Tennison persona intact. "J.. Joe?"
Joe's eyelids lifted enough for Frank to see a sliver of blue. "Pills..." he gasped. "Jeans... right... front... pocket."
Frank leaned over his hands moving toward Joe's waist, stopping at the feeble shake of his brother's head.
"Not... you... Menace." Even weakened, the venom in the last word was clear. His eyes closed again, his head lolling back.
A pair of hands pushed Frank roughly out of the way, knocking his glasses askew as he landed on his side. Headmaster Whitman pulled a small container from Joe's pocket and hurriedly stuffed a pill under his tongue.
The whole school stood frozen as Joe's breathing evened out and his eyes opened. Gradually, the grip on his left arm relaxed, and he nodded at Whitman. "Thanks," he whispered.
"Are you all right? I'm calling an ambulance." The headmaster's voice was rough with worry.
"I don't need that." His voice already sounded stronger. "I'll be okay in a bit," Joe answered, struggling to a sitting position. "It's been a while since I've had one of these attacks."
"You need to be checked out," Whitman said, putting an arm around Joe and helping him up. Seeing his brother upright, Frank started to breathe normally again. He wiped his forehead, surprised to find a thin sheen of sweat dampening his hair.
"No hospital," Joe was saying, "I just need to rest."
The headmaster regarded them both with eyes devoid of expression. "Anyone on my staff who has an incident like this gets checked out before being cleared to work again." He turned to the closest teacher. "Find Kathy and send her to my office." With one arm supporting Joe, he started propelling him toward the exit. Before they had gone five feet, the headmaster stopped, turned to Frank who was still on the floor, and said, "Mr. Tennison, I'd like you to join us," then abruptly turned back to Joe.
Making sure his hands were noticeably shaking, Frank resettled his glasses, pushed himself to a standing position, then followed. Although his eyes stayed cast down on the floor, he could see he had the attention of the entire dining hall. Good, he thought, mission accomplished.
Once the office door closed behind them, Whitman dropped the arm supporting Joe and turned to face him, controlled anger emanating from his entire being. "What exactly was that?" His voice was like splintered icicles. "I brought you into my school, integrated you into the lives of my students, and now..."
"Now my cover's been compromised." Frank cut across the headmaster's words. "So we've taken appropriate steps to maintain our objective." His voice was confident, his demeanor commanding, and Joe was once again amazed at how quickly his brother could shift between personalities.
"What? Compromised?" Whitman's stony expression morphed into one of concern. "You mean there's someone here who knows who you two really are? Are the students in danger?"
"Not both of us," Joe said. "Just Frank, and not really compromised."
"That was the purpose of this..." Frank paused, and Joe could tell he was trying to choose his words carefully. "This exercise." He let out a breath. "We've used these identities before. Apparently, there's someone here with a connection to a previous incarnation of Frank Tennison." Whitman looked startled.
"We needed to put some distance between us," Joe added, the fingers of his left hand drumming lightly on his leg. Now that the whole acting thing was over, his adrenaline levels were shooting up. The need to move was overwhelming. "Just in case."
Whitman's eyes widened. "In case what?"
Frank looked at him with calm eyes. "In case I need to pull back. If I have to 'go underground', as it were, we wouldn't be leaving Sunny unprotected. It's easier to set this up if the students and faculty believe we can't stand each other."
"You boys live in a much too complicated a world for me." The headmaster's shoulders sagged. "What happens now?"
Joe gave him a crooked smile. "I lay low all day, then apologize at dinner tonight for scaring everyone." The drumming from his fingers played a beat under his words. "At the end I tack on a comment about how the attack was probably caused by exhaustion and stress, and that I may have overreacted this morning regarding Frank." The drumming stopped, and he looked straight at Whitman, a smirk covering his face. "No one will believe it for a second."
Frank stepped up beside his brother. "Which is exactly what we want."
There was silence for a moment then the first few notes of a jaunty pop song filled the air. Whitman started, then moved toward the phone lying on his desk. "My son's gotten ahold of it again," he said, sliding it open. "Kathy. Yes, he's here." The man's voice became business-like, his eyes flickering toward Joe. "He appears to be all right... No, he refused to go... I informed him that wasn't an option, that he needed to be looked at by someone... Good. We'll see you in a few minutes." He closed the phone, his eyes still trained on Joe. "Just as a warning, she's going to have a few choice words for you. You've got about five minutes. I'll go head her off outside and 'explain' what happened."
Once the door closed, Joe stretched out on the couch. "Guess I'd better work on getting pale and languid again."
Frank's eyebrows shot up. "Languid? Do you even know what that means?"
Joe snorted. "You hold your book club right outside my bedroom door. I'm picking up a few things." He let out a breath, his expression growing more serious. "I don't know how you do this, 'bro."
"Turn into someone else. And make it look easy." Joe ran a hand through his hair. "There were about twelve times this morning I was sure I'd screwed up. And now I have to keep pretending to be him in front of a doctor."
"You did fine." Frank removed the glasses, held them up to the window, then absently started cleaning the lenses on the corner of his shirt. "Better than fine. You had me worried there for a bit."
"Really. I'll get Anna to nominate you for a Tony next year."
Joe smiled. This was the first time Frank had voluntarily mentioned Anna since they'd been at Pocumtuck. He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Why not an Oscar?"
"Those are for movies." Frank examined the glasses one last time then settled them back on his face. "Tony's are for live performances."
"And you keep track of this, why?"
Frank made a clucking sound with his tongue. "Culture lessons later, little brother. Acting now. The doctor'll be here any minute, and if this is going to work, I can't be here."
Joe nodded and lay back down, forcing his breathing to become more shallow. Through half-closed eyes, he watched as his brother transformed back into the timid, cowed Frank Tennison – his shoulders slumping down, his chin pointing toward his chest, the calculating gleam in his eyes fading. The whole process took the space of three breaths. Joe shook his head in admiration as Frank slunk out the door. "Damn," he murmured, "he really is good. I hate that."