Act Four, Scene Three

Frank had no idea how long he sat by Anna's bed, one hand resting on her arm, just watching her breathe. Nurses came by several times, each one following the same routine – they checked her pulse, verified her heart monitor was still connected properly, and typed notes on her condition on the screen of a tablet computer.

The third time it happened, the nurse – a motherly-looking blonde woman wearing bright purple scrubs – scowled gently at him. "You need to get some rest."

"Can't." His jaw clenched as he spoke. Monosyllables were the only things he trusted himself to speak without completely losing his composure.

"They all say that." She clasped the computer to her chest. "You won't do her any good if you're exhausted, and, anyway, she's sleeping now." Frank's head jerked up. "Whatever she was given is pretty much out of her system at this point. When she's ready, she'll wake up."

Frank swallowed. His mouth was dry. "'kay. Thanks."

The nurse rolled her eyes. "That was a hint that you should get some sleep, too." She sighed. "You're not going to, though, are you?"

"Can't," he repeated. "Not yet."

The door opened a crack, and the agent stationed in the hall stuck her head in. "Frank? Travis just buzzed. They need you back downstairs."

Frank felt the blood drain from his face. "Tell him I'll be right there."

The nurse regarded him curiously. "Downstairs?"

"My brother." He couldn't make himself to explain any further.

The woman's eyes widened. "The shooting victim." It wasn't a question. Frank nodded, his jaw still tight. "I see." The look she gave him was both sympathetic and understanding. "I'll keep an eye on her until you get back," she said. "Then you get some rest."

He nodded, then pushed the door open, leaving Anna asleep behind him.

The waiting room was populated by statues.

Marisol and Chet sat by the door holding hands, her copper-colored hair spilling off his shoulder. Tony stood, cell phone in hand, beside a blanket-draped figure in a wheelchair. Biff.

"He sweet-talked the phlebotomist into taking two pints." Chet's eyes had followed Frank's gaze. "Then he got up too soon and passed out." He indicated the wheelchair with his chin. "That was the only way they'd let him back in here." A grimace crossed his face. "Turns out it was a good thing, though. He needed it."

Frank didn't need to ask who Chet meant.

Kara stood alone by the window staring out at the skyline, her arms wrapped around her chest as if she were trying to hold herself together.

"Travis came by a little while ago. Something about a guy wearing a wire. He wanted to know if she wanted in on the interview." Chet sighed. "She almost took his head off. On the other hand, it was the first sound she'd made since you left. I was getting worried." He paused. "How's Anna?"

Frank's eyes stayed glued on Kara. "She's asleep." He let out a breath. "She's safe. That's what matters."

"Frank?" Tony's incredulous voice came from his right. "Man, if I hadn't heard your voice, I wouldn't have known... Never mind." He pulled Frank into an embrace. "He's strong. He'll pull through." He stepped back suddenly, the cell phone buzzing in his hand. "Phil," he said, glancing down. "He's trying to catch a flight, but it's pouring out there." He opened the phone. "Phil? No. No word yet..." He turned and walked back toward Biff.

"Mr. Hardy?" Frank turned. A tall, dark haired woman with green eyes stood in the doorway, her hand extended. She looked to be about fifty years old, her shoulders drooping with exhaustion. "I'm Dr. Mueller. I performed the surgery on your brother." She glanced around, noting the number of people in the room. "Perhaps you'd like to go somewhere more private?"

Frank shook his head, the red fringe falling back over his eyes. "No. This is our family. Anything you need to tell me you can say in front of them." From the corner of his eye, he saw Kara step closer.

Dr. Mueller nodded. "We removed two bullets – one from your brother's left shoulder, the other from his chest cavity. The first was fairly straight-forward. The second was lodged in his left lung."

Kara gasped. Frank's eyes closed involuntarily, the image of Joe bleeding on the floor still burned in his brain. He stood for a moment, then slowly reopened his eyes, turning toward Kara. Chet had placed a comforting hand on her arm. Her face was pale and set, but she didn't shake the hand off. Frank looked back at the doctor and nodded for her to continue.

"We got both bullets out and repaired the damage." The doctor's expression grew more serious. "It was touch and go for a while. Between the collapsed lung and the blood loss..." She broke off and took a deep breath. "He's on a ventilator, and we're going to need to keep him sedated for a few days. It gives him time to heal and us time to be sure he can breathe on his own before we remove the vent tube." She looked Frank straight in the eyes. "He's still listed in critical condition. As with any surgery, there is a risk of infection. We're taking precautions to minimize that risk."

Frank felt like he had been kicked in the stomach. A quick glance to the side showed him Kara's expression mirrored his own. "Can we see him?"

"I don't see why not." The doctor smiled. "Even sedated, he may be able to hear voices. One or two at a time, and not for too long. You'll need to wear masks and gloves." She looked at the people in the room. "He's hooked up to a lot of machinery. If any alarms go off, you'll need to move out of the way as quickly as possible." Her glance fell on Biff. "You, young man, will need to wait to see him until I can be sure you can stand on your own. I heard about what you did. It was reckless." The green eyes softened. "But it may have saved his life."

Biff gave her a wan smile. "I'd do it again." Tony elbowed his shoulder, a resigned expression on his face.

Frank pushed the hair out of his eyes. "Dr. Mueller." He paused, making sure he had control over his voice before speaking again. "Thank you." She bowed her head to him and walked out of the room. He turned to face Kara, who now stood expressionless beside him, staring at the door. "You should see him first," he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "He wouldn't have made it this far if it wasn't for you."

Kara's eyes were troubled. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, pressing her lips together. Finally, she looked back up at him and shook her head, strands of hair falling out of her pony tail. "I can't," she whispered, her face crumpling. "Not right now. I can't see him like that."

He squeezed her shoulders. "It's okay. I understand." He watched as she turned back toward the window, resuming her vigil over the darkening parking lot. Frank let his hands fall to his sides and took a deep breath. "I'll be back," he said to no one in particular. Then he squared his shoulders and took what seemed like the longest walk of his life.

Before twenty minutes had passed, one of machines monitoring Joe started blaring an alarm, the light in the top corner flashing red. A nurse hurried in and, as she checked the lines and the equipment, said, "You need to leave now, sir. I'm sorry."

Frank let go of his brother's hand and backed out of the room, exhausted and numb as he pulled off the gloves and mask he had donned. He walked back to the waiting room, hardly aware of where his feet were taking him. Please, let him be all right, he thought as he opened the door.

Tony crouched by Biff's wheelchair, his head whipping toward the sound of the door opening. He nodded to Frank, his eyes still on their friend. Chet was just putting away his cell phone and rose as Frank approached. A quick scan of the room showed both Kara and Marisol were missing.

"Marisol has to work tomorrow," Chet said, answering the question in Frank's eyes, "and Travis pretty much threw Kara over his shoulder and hoisted her out. He said something about his wife killing him if he didn't take care of her." He paused. "She must be wiped. She didn't even threaten him." His eyes took in Frank's haggard appearance. "Speaking of..."

"I'm staying." Frank forced steel into the words.

Chet raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I wasn't going to try to convince you otherwise, boss. I know an exercise in futility when I see one." His eyes softened. "Your folks called." Frank's head jerked up. "Their cell service is spotty, and they won't be in port for two or three more days. Once they are, they'll disembark and head straight to an airport. I told them to email me the details, and I'd see they got here as soon as it's possible." He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable for a moment. "Oh, and I called your Aunt Gertrude. I'd forgotten how impressive and... extensive... a vocabulary she has. She's taking care of a sick friend but wanted me to tell you she'll be praying for Joe." His cheeks reddened. "And that I should make sure you rest and eat well so you don't end up in intensive care as well." He raised an eyebrow. "Speaking of futile exercises..."

"Thank you." Frank's reply was a whisper. He hadn't been looking forward to telling his parents the news.

"Is he that bad?"

Frank nodded, his face a mask. As much as he appreciated his friends and what they were doing, he wanted to be alone with his thoughts and worries. It was too much work trying to keep it together for them.

Tony walked forward, worried eyes still on Biff's slumped form. "Hey, guys? I'm going to take the human blood bank home, and make him a steak dinner." He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and handed them to Frank. "I know you're not planning on leaving, but he wants you to take these so you can get home if you need to." A small smile played on his lips. "You know, get a change of clothes. Or something." He clapped Frank's shoulder. "I'll bring him back in the morning. Try to get some sleep." Seconds later, he was wheeling Biff out the door and down the hall.

Chet sat back down in one of the upholstered chairs and started making himself comfortable. Frank eyed him with tired surprise. "You don't need to stay."

"Like hell I don't," Chet replied. "Are you going?" Frank shook his head. "Then I'm staying, too."

"Chet." Frank looked at his friend, gratitude in his brown eyes. "I think you should head home. I need... " His voice started to shake, and he cleared his throat in an attempt to steady it. "I need some time alone."

Chet eyed him for a long minute, then sighed. "I'll be back in the morning. I'll bring some of your own clothes, a toothbrush, and some other stuff you might need." His back straightened and his eyes flashed. "But, so help me Frank Hardy, if I get back here tomorrow morning and you're wallowing in some kind of misplaced guilt, I'll be glued to your side until he's awake. Do you hear me?"

Frank barked out a half-laugh, thinking for a moment how strange it felt to find humor in anything just now. "Yes, sir," he said. "Understood."

"At least with you I don't have to worry about the walls staying intact." Chet shook his head and let out a sigh. "Call me if you need anything."

Frank figured he must have fallen asleep. He remembered sitting down in the chair Chet had vacated and pulling up a second one to prop up his feet, his arms crossing his chest to stop himself from shivering in the room's oddly cool climate. There were vague memories of hearing the door open once or twice during the night, then nothing. Now, from behind his eyelids, he could tell the room was brighter – either morning had come or the lights were on a timer – and surprisingly warmer. No, he thought, sleep still clouding his brain, it's not the room that's warmer. It's me. As he reached up to rub his eyes, he discovered the reason; a blanket had been placed over him and tucked in over his legs and chest. In addition, a hand was settled protectively on his shoulder. He tried pushing himself into a sitting position, blinking several times to make his eyes focus.

"It's still early. You should sleep more."

This voice brought him to full alertness immediately. "Anna? What...? How...?"

"When I woke up, the nurse told me you'd been there. Then she told me about Joe." She took his hand, her dark eyes bright with unshed tears. "Frank, I'm so sorry. This is all my fault."

He squeezed her hand and shook his head. "How could you have known? I just wish I'd listened when Joe..."

Anna grabbed his shoulders and shook him gently. "No," she said, looking in his eyes. "If you won't let it be my fault, I won't let it be your fault either. It's Brian's fault. No one else's."

Frank let out a long breath. "You could give Chet a run for his money," he said, his voice shaky.

She stroked the hair from his forehead, a crooked smile on her face. "I'd say it in reverse, except I'm mostly broke," she said. "I think I can afford some coffee and breakfast, though. You don't look like you've eaten much since yesterday." She stood and pulled him to his feet, holding on to his arm as he swayed slightly. "Make that the last few days. Come on." She led him to the waiting room door. "Food first, then we can visit Joe."

When Chet returned the next morning with clothes for Frank, he handed Anna a canvas bag holding an oversized sweater and jeans, two pony-tail holders and a bandana, and her glasses. When Anna emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, the movie star had been packed up and replaced by the college student.

Kara also came back that morning, wearing clothes that were slightly too big for her and bringing the news that Montvale's wire had worked perfectly; Milton Jackson was now behind bars awaiting arraignment, and Brian Jackson had been taken to a secure psychiatric facility. "Turns out Brian is Milton's nephew," she said, her tone clipped and business-like. "It explains how he knew about, and got access to, that greenhouse." She then grabbed gloves and a mask and disappeared into Joe's room, Travis standing guard at the door. She emerged some time later, pale but composed, and took up sentry duty at the window again.

Phil arrived late in the afternoon from the west coast and set up a communications center in one corner of the waiting room, his laptop and phone in constant use, sending messages to the three elder Hardys and reporting their responses. Marisol showed up after the second day with supplies to remove the extensions from Frank's hair and wash out what remained of the black dye.

The next several days blended in to one another. Frank sat with Joe every moment he was allowed, sometimes accompanied by one of the others, sometimes alone. Anna stayed with him each night, providing silent support when his mind wouldn't stop spinning and making light conversation when he needed distraction. Chet stopped in each morning with breakfast and returned every evening with dinner, messages from other friends and acquaintances, and updates on agency clients. Frank was grateful to have other things to think about, even if only for a few minutes. Tony stayed through Monday evening, then had to head back to Bayport and the restaurant – "There are two cheeseburger pizzas waiting for Joe in Biff's freezer," he said before going. "Make sure he eats them."

Biff stopped in several times a day, still pale but growing stronger, until announcing on the third day that he was being sent to London for a week. "I wanted to be here when he woke up. Call me when he does," he instructed, an anguished look on his face. "I don't give a damn about the time difference." Frank clasped his arm and gave his word.

On the fourth morning, Dr. Mueller took Joe off the ventilator. Frank sat, one leg bouncing convulsively – another of Joe's habits he had picked up over the past few days – and waited for the doctor's verdict. If Joe could breathe on his own, the sedatives would be reduced. Kara paced the floor, looking for all the world like a caged tiger waiting to pounce, her dark hair loose for a change, hiding her face. Anna occupied the chair next to Frank – one hand entwined with his, her head on his shoulder – and whispered words of encouragement.

When the door opened, the smile on the doctor's face told Frank what he needed to know. "He's strong, that brother of yours," she said. "He's breathing like a champion. You'd never know he had a hole in his lung." Her green eyes held a look of deep satisfaction. "I'd say he'll probably start stirring in the next several hours. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some other patients I need to check in with."

Relief flowed through Frank like a river, leaving him exhausted and light-headed. He disengaged his hand from Anna's. "I need to let my folks know." He had talked to his parents several times since Joe's surgery. The conversations had been short, both Frank and his parents trying their best to keep their emotions in check.

"On it." Phil's voice came from the floor, cell phone in hand. "Your mom's getting really good at texting." His phone chirped, and he glanced at the screen. "She says 'Good. Home tomorrow. Tell him to get some sleep.'" He raised his eyebrows at his friend. "The last part's all caps. Your mother knows you."

Frank let out a long breath. "Tell her not until I see Joe's eyes open."

"Sure. Leave me to do the dirty work," Phil said through a grin, his fingers flying over the miniature keypad.

"You and Kara should head in now." Frank turned to find Anna looking at him. Dark circles stood out under her eyes, evidence of her support over the past few days. "You should be there when he wakes up."

He stretched out a hand and tucked a loose piece of hair behind her ear. "You should get some rest."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "When you do." Then she kissed him.

He started, then reached out to pull her closer, holding her close to him when the kiss ended. "I'll hold you to that," he said, smiling gently and resting his hand on her cheek. Then he turned to Kara. "Come on," he said. "You can yell at him first."

The buzzing noise was back. Need to get... ears checked, Joe thought groggily. Really irritating... Gradually it subsided, allowing other noises to take its place. There were a couple different beeping sounds, a dripping noise, and a motorized hum that seemed to be accompanied by a painful squeezing on his right bicep. "Ow," he murmured. "Stop... it."

The buzzing almost sounded like words – "Did he say something?" – but he couldn't be sure.

Slowly, he became aware of other things – the sun's warmth on his upper body, a faint pressure on his right hand, pain... a lot of pain, mostly located on his left side. The tightness came back on his arm. "Shit... Really?"

"I heard it that time." Frank's voice. From very far away.

"Joe? Can you hear me?" Kara's voice, much closer than Frank's. The slight pressure on his hand increased. Her hand holding his.

He tried to curl his fingers around hers and found a barrier against his skin. "Wha's wrong... your hand?" he whispered, not sure if she was really here this time or if this was one of the dreams that had been flickering through his mind.

"Nothing. It's a glove." Her voice sounded muffled, but she was so close he could smell the scent of her shampoo. "Joe, can you open your eyes?"

"Tired," he breathed. And it was true. He wanted nothing more than to drift back to the nothingness, where everything didn't hurt. As he started to fall back asleep, the humming noise returned along with the pain on his upper arm. What is that? He forced his eyes open and turned his head to the side, blinking so he could focus. The motion alerted him to a rawness in his throat. He swallowed convulsively, trying to moisten it.

"Hey." He could hear relief in Kara's voice and automatically turned toward it. "You're awake." There were tears in her eyes.

"You... all right?" Concern for her well-being replaced the annoyance over his dry throat and whatever was attacking his arm.

"I'm fine now," she said, stroking his forehead. "Have I ever told you how beautiful your blue eyes are?"

He shook his head, puzzled by her words.

"I have to agree, little brother." Frank's voice also sounded muffled. The thought registered in Joe's mind that they were both wearing masks. Huh... Weird. Was he wearing one, too? Is that why his mouth was so dry?

"Frank?" Joe turned from Kara to peer at what he could see of his brother's face. The simple motion completely exhausted him. He could feel his eyes starting to close, but he there was something he had to say. "Geez, 'bro... You look... terrible... Take a nap... or something."

He heard Kara snicker and the start of Frank's surprised laughter as his eyes shut and he drifted back to sleep.

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