"You don't have to do this." The dark-haired man turned to the woman on his right, his expression serious, his eyes wary. "We can leave right now if you want. No one will even know we've been here."
"It's fine," she said, her eyes glued to the green door in front of them. She tightened her grip on the package in her arms. "I can do this."
"I mean it, Anna." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't want you to be uncomfortable. Let's just go."
The woman twisted out of his grasp and stepped away. "What's going on here, Frank? Why do you want me to leave so badly?"
"I just don't want you to feel forced into this." He sighed, his shoulders sagging, and leaned heavily on the cane in his left hand. The motion drew attention to the dark circles under his eyes, the faint lines around his mouth. "I know you don't feel comfortable in crowds."
Her expression softened. "You're exhausted. And for the record, I'm doing this of my own free will." She gripped the package she carried even more tightly, shifting so her hands were hidden, hoping he couldn't see her how tense her fingers were and how they were threatening to push through the brown paper wrapping. "Let's just go in."
"Don't say I didn't warn you," the man muttered. As he put his free hand out, the door opened inward, causing him to stumble slightly. Air hissed out from between his teeth at the motion.
"Hey, 'bro, were you planning on staying out here all night?" The blond man standing in the doorway looked down at them as they stood on the stoop, the slight show of concern on his face conflicting with the glint in his blue eyes. "You didn't forget which way the door opens, did you?" He reached out and took the package from the woman, lifting the paper to peek inside. "You brought pie. Great! What kind? Don't tell me. Let me figure it out." Without another word, he disappeared back into the house, his nose under the paper, leaving the door open behind him.
The dark-haired man turned to his companion and sighed audibly, the hand grasping the cane showing white knuckles. "You're sure you want to do this?" His voice was both tired and resigned. The woman nodded, swallowing hard as she did, and tried to make her expression look encouraging. "Fine." He put his free arm against her back and guided her into the house. "But if he doesn't leave the memory thing alone, I may have to kill him."
The words brought a brittle smile to her face. "No, you won't."
"You can't be sure about that. It came awfully close at the office yesterday."
She reached up and touched his cheek. "Yes, I can. It would upset your mother. Now let's go inside and shut the door. It's cold, and we're letting all the heat out."
Dinner at the table in the kitchen was a crowded affair, with Joe squeezed between Kara and his father. His mother had spent the better part of the afternoon covering the dining room table with linen tablecloths that needed ironing, china in those weird quilted storage containers, and silver that needed polishing, so eating in there was out of the question. Grumbling slightly, Joe got the old folding chairs from the attic, and somehow they all managed to fit.
When they were finally all settled, Laura let out a satisfied sigh. "It's good to have everyone here." She smiled at Kara and Anna. "I'm glad you girls could join us. Did your families mind?"
Joe snorted, the sound cutting off as Kara's elbow dug into his side. Hard. "Be good," she murmured, her lips barely moving. She turned to Laura, her ponytail swinging as her head moved. "My father wasn't thrilled, but they'll survive. My cousins will all be there." She shrugged her shoulders. "I promised I'd come home for Christmas. That made it up to my mother."
"Not thrilled. That's an understatement." Joe looked over at his parents, shaking his head in disbelief. "She's leaving out the part where her father offered her money if she'd come home alone for Thanksgiving," he said, reaching across the table for the platter of sausages. Despite Kara's aunt telling him to give Joe a break, Professor Malone's animosity only seemed to increase. "Then he said he'd double it if she leaves me home for Christmas." He turned his head toward Kara. "And despite what your mother said, I'm pretty sure he wasn't joking."
"I'm sure he'll come around, dear." Laura smiled at her younger son then turned to where Frank sat with his girlfriend. "How about you, Anna?"
Anna shot a quick look at Frank, a momentary alarm filling her dark eyes. Frank shook his head, an almost imperceptible gesture that attracted Joe's attention. "I don't have much family." Anna looked down at the table. "I used to spend Thanksgiving with Pierre and his wife, but..." Her voice trailed off.
"Yeah, that could be awkward. Can someone pass me the mustard?" Joe said, trying to shift the conversation. While he found it odd that Anna never spoke about her past, he figured it was her business if she wanted to keep things private.
"Mustard?" Frank raised his eyebrows. "You don't like mustard."
"Of course not. It's disgusting." Joe made a face, then decided to take advantage of the comment for more teasing. "But Kara does. Must have slipped your mind." He grinned at the look on his brother's face. "No worries."
As dinner continued, Joe managed to weave in several more not-so-subtle references to Frank's recent bout with amnesia, watching with amusement as his brother's expression went from resigned to what Joe liked to refer to as the 'expression of great forbearance'. It wasn't often he could tease his brother, and he was planning on getting as much mileage out of this situation as possible.
The conversation turned to the next day's menu, and for a few minutes everyone was busy talking about who would be cooking what and what time things needed to be started for dinner to be ready at one.
Frank leaned over, whispering something to Anna that Joe couldn't make out. She gave him an understanding smile, her hand sliding across the table to squeeze Frank's. He heard his brother mutter, "I just wish he'd stop," before rubbing his other hand across his forehead. Joe felt a momentary pang of guilt. Maybe I should lighten up a bit. It hadn't occurred to him that even though Frank's mind had fully recovered, he might be feeling sensitive about his recent memory loss.
"Joe?" Frank's voice held a note of exasperation
"Huh?" Joe startled, jumping slightly in his chair.
"Didn't you hear me? I asked you to pass the rolls," Frank said, his voice more gravelly than usual.
Joe looked at his brother, noticing for the first time Frank's paler than normal face and drawn appearance. "Sorry," he said. "I was somewhere else for a second." He lifted the cloth covering the bread basket. "It's empty."
Fenton cleared his throat. "I believe here are some more staying warm in the oven," he said, sharing a glance with his wife before turning back to Frank. "Do you want me to get you one, son?"
"No. I've got it. The doctors said I need to move around more." Frank rose slowly, his jaw tightening as he straightened. "See? Just fine."
Joe shoved a last forkful of rice in his mouth. "Could you get me one, too, please?"
"Joseph!" Gertrude's voice rang out from the other side of the table. "You weren't raised by wolves. Don't talk with your mouth full."
He swallowed, a look of chagrin covering his face. "Sorry, Aunt Gertrude." His gaze shifted from his aunt to Kara, who sat smirking at him. He sighed. "I know. That's one."
Fenton stopped following his older son with his eyes and looked askance at his younger son. "One what?"
Kara grinned at the older man, her brown eyes sparkling with delight. "Night of washing the dishes. Every time someone has to call Joe by his full name, he gets a night of cleaning up after dinner. If all three names get pulled out, it's a week."
"You got lucky," Joe snorted, grains of rice falling from his lips. "It won't happen again."
"No, I didn't." Kara reached over and brushed the food from his chin, sending an electric current through his skin. "And, yes, it will. I know you. By the end of this weekend, you'll be wearing gloves and an apron for a month." The corners of her mouth twitched. "I'll be taking pictures."
"Really? Cause, I'm thinking that'll be the last..." Something bounced off the back of Joe's head and thumped on the floor by his foot. A roll. He whipped around in his chair, turning just in time for a second roll to hit him square on the forehead. "What the hell?"
"Joseph!" This time it was Fenton who spoke. From the corner of his eyes, Joe saw Anna watching wide-eyed and open-mouthed as his father rose from his seat, his face grim, his voice firm and commanding. "Frank, please explain what just happened here."
Silence dropped over the table as everyone turned to stare at Frank. Anna picked up her water glass, her hand shaking slightly as she brought it to her mouth.
Frank stood at the counter, looking back at them all, his eyes wide and innocent. "I'm sorry. Am I not supposed to throw food at my brother's head?" His voice dripped with sincerity, and a beatific smile covered his face. "I must have forgotten."
There was a long moment of silence, then a peal of laughter escaped from Laura, growing louder as the seconds passed. Fenton's demeanor relaxed, and laugh lines appeared around his eyes. Kara brushed crumbs from Joe's forehead with one hand, her brown eyes dancing, and Anna kept the glass pressed against her mouth, desperately trying not to spit water back into it. Even Gertrude cracked a smile. Joe glared at his brother, shock and annoyance filling his chest, then finally shook his head and mumbled, "Okay, I guess I deserved that..."
"You guess?" For the first time that evening, a hint of a smile touched Frank's face.
Dinner didn't last too much longer. Gertrude left the table early, saying she needed to be up 'at the crack of dawn' to put the turkey in the oven. Laura sighed as she watched Joe finish the last sausage, smiling while listening to him negotiate with Kara about which two nights he would be relegated to dish duty. When everyone was done, Frank placed his silverware on his plate, grabbed it with one hand, and stood, his other hand gripping his cane. There was a tightness around his eyes that made Joe nervous. From the look on her face, he could tell Anna was also worried.
It turned out they were right to be. As Frank passed by Joe, he stumbled. Kara reached out and managed to catch the plate before it reached the floor; the fork and knife clattered down with a metallic clang. Joe stood and grabbed Frank's arm, just managing to keep his brother from following the utensils.
"You all right?" He tried his best to keep his voice matter-of-fact, knowing that drawing attention to the stumble would only serve to get his brother's back up. From the corner of his eye, he could see concern etched on Anna's face. She started to rise from her chair to help him, and Joe shot her a quick glance, hoping she would understand, breathing a small sigh of relief when she nodded and sat down again, her eyes following Frank's every motion.
"I'm fine." Frank's words sounded strong, but Joe could tell he was trying not to wince.
"'Course you are, 'bro." He kept his hand firmly wrapped around Frank's upper arm. "And, we're going to make sure you stay that way." All traces of teasing disappeared from his face. "Why don't we let everybody else clean up, and I'll get you upstairs."
Laura nodded in agreement. "I'll take care of the dishes, dear. You've had a long day, and I'm guessing you could use some rest."
"I'm fine." Frank's expression grew stony.
"Great." Joe let out a breath. "Be fine upstairs. I need to talk to you about the Stapleton report anyway, and now's as good a time as any." He leaned in closer to his brother's ear and stage-whispered, "Dude, Mom's offering to do our chores. Take advantage of it." Forcing a wide, unconcerned smile on his face, he continued, "I suppose we could sit in the living room, but do you really want to bore your girlfriend by making her listen to the oh-so-exciting details of yet another art gallery security system?"
He was grateful to see his brother give him a level – if somewhat annoyed – look. "The Stapleton report? I thought you'd finished with that."
Joe shrugged, and threw an arm over Frank's shoulders, a casual gesture that was sure to keep his brother steady. "What can I say? You left early yesterday, so I didn't get to go over the report with you. They're expecting to hear from me on Monday." He tilted his head to the side. "If you don't want to, I suppose I could tell them..."
"Never mind," Frank snapped. "Better today than tomorrow." He turned to Anna, his expression softening. "I'll be back down in bit. This shouldn't take too long. Then I'll get the bags out of the car."
This time it was Fenton was who exchanged a look with Joe. "Already taken care of, son. I brought them up to your room while you were talking to your mother earlier. It got me out of setting the table." He flashed a grin at his wife, nimbly moving out of the way of the dish towel she flicked at him. "You two shouldn't be the only ones getting out of chores."
When they finally got to Frank's room, Joe let out a relieved breath. Once or twice he had been sure his brother was going to fall down the stairs. And we really don't need to be spending another holiday in the hospital, he thought, remembering an Easter dinner that had been ruined when he had been rushed to the emergency room with a burst appendix.
Frank sat down stiffly on the edge of the bed. "So, Stapleton?"
Joe blinked. "Yeah. I'm sure it's fine, but I know you like to get all anal-retentive about what we give our clients. I figured you'd want to take a look at it."
"Okay." Frank held his hand out. "Do you want me to correct the grammar as well?"
"Why do you always assume the grammar needs correcting? I can writes real good when I tries." Joe grinned at Frank's eye roll. "Just be aware that if you find anything, you'll be the one retyping it. It's in my room." He eyed his brother, knowing he'd have to be careful not to overplay this. "You don't look all that comfortable like that, 'bro. Tell you what." He moved to the head of the bed and fluffed up one of the pillows. "Why don't you stretch out here, and I'll go find it. Then you can read it and tell me what's wrong with it."
"So you're admitting there's something wrong with it? That's got to be a first."
"There's nothing wrong with it. It's a work of art, no pun intended." Joe put on an aggrieved expression. "But you always manage to find something to complain about."
"Because you always miss something." Frank huffed out a breath as he slid back on the bed. Once near the headboard, he slowly leaned against the pillow Joe had adjusted, his expression relaxing slightly. "Okay, you were right. That is better. Thanks."
"Good. Keep going with that line of thought. I'll be back in a minute."
It was more than a minute. Although Joe knew exactly where the report was – he had left it on the nightstand so it would be easy to retrieve – he hesitated for a moment before going back. Frank really looks exhausted, he thought. He slapped the file folder against his hand once or twice, trying to decide what would annoy Frank less – finding the stray errors Joe was sure were in the report, or getting found out if he stayed where he was for a few more minutes pretending to look for it to give his brother some time to rest. After a few seconds, he settled on letting Frank go over the document. Details tend to relax him, anyway.
When he walked back in the room, he found the pretense wouldn't have been necessary. Frank was already fast asleep, his head lolling to one side. Stubborn fool, Joe thought. You need to stop pushing so hard. He pulled a blanket up from the foot of the bed, gently tucked it around his brother's shoulders, then turned to leave, switching off the light and quietly closing the door on his way out.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he could hear voices coming from the living room below.
"He says he's fine, but he tires easily. I think he was expecting to bounce back more quickly than he has. He's finding it...", he heard Anna pause trying to pick out the correct word, "... irritating."
"That's not surprising." His mother's answering voice was dry. "If I know my son, he's trying to do everything he normally would, getting frustrated when he can't, and finally collapsing from exhaustion." She sighed. "Don't believe it when they tell you doctors make the worst patients. Detectives do. I know from experience."
There was the sound of something being placed on the coffee table. "I just wish there was something I could do." Anna's voice held a note of uncertainty.
"You are doing something, dear. You're there for him. That's what he needs." Joe heard the affection in his mother's words and smiled. Both his parents had been long concerned about Frank's lack of a social life and had been extremely pleased when he had started seeing Anna. A loud whistling noise came from the kitchen. "Sounds like the tea water's ready. I'll be back in a minute. And you should have a cookie before Joe comes back downstairs and eats them all."
"Did I hear someone say 'cookie'?"
Laura shook her head as she walked from the room. "I knew we didn't move fast enough." There was note of resignation in her voice. "Save some for your brother."
"He's asleep," he called after her. "And you know the saying. You snooze, you lose." Joe moved swiftly down the last few stairs and jumped on the couch next to Anna. He grabbed two cookies and shoved one in his mouth, eyes closing in pleasure as the chocolate chips melted on his tongue. He opened his eyes and looked at Anna. "You've got to try one of these, they're..." The words died on his lips. Anna sat, her lips pressed together in a hard line, her eyes unfocused. "Hey, what's wrong?"
Anna shifted her gaze to Joe. "Nothing."
He took another bite of cookie, examining her expression as he swallowed. "Not buying it," he said. "Spill."
"No, really. Nothing's wrong. Everyone's being really nice." She took a cookie and played with it for a moment, an almost realistic looking smile on her face.
She let out a breath, the smile fading. "I just... I'm not used to this."
"This what?" He shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth.
"This everything... everyone's being so nice." She let out a breath. "I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."
The second cookie disappeared into Joe's mouth. "I'm not following you. What other shoe?" He brushed crumbs from his pants to the carpet.
"It was something your mother said." She paused and looked away. "That I'm there for him." He shook his head, unsure of what she meant. "I almost wasn't." The words were soft, but Joe could hear the self-recrimination in them.
She swallowed, her eyes on the cookie in her hand. "No, it's not, Joe. I left. He was hurt and in pain, and I left."
Joe's eyes narrowed. No wonder they get along so well. They've both got the guilt thing down pat. He sighed. "You freaked out. Perfectly understandable reaction." He slid closer to her, putting an arm around her shoulders and drawing her close. "But you're missing the important part here. You came back."
She sniffed. "I keep waiting for him to tell me to leave, that he doesn't think he can trust me any more."
Joe snorted. "Well, that's never going to happen." He could feel her shaking her head and shifted so she had to look at him. There were tears in the corner of her eyes.
"Really?" Her voice wavered as she spoke. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because I know him." He felt her relax in his arms. "Anna, I've never seen Frank look at anyone the way he looks at you. Ever. He's a different person with you. A happy person who smiles. It's actually a little strange. I mean, the last time I saw him like this he was ten, and my parents had just given him the slide rule set he wanted for Christmas."
"You're not just saying that? He's... wait..." Joe shook his head, watching as Anna's eyes widened. "He asked for a slide rule?"
Joe shrugged. "What can I say? He's a freak. A happy freak, but a freak nonetheless." He reached over to the plate and snagged another cookie, giving her a crooked smile as he did so. "At least now you know what you're getting yourself into." He bit the cookie in half. "There's still time to run away screaming if you want."
She smiled back at him, her shoulders less tense, but Joe could still see a tightness around her eyes. "I think I'm good." She stood and pushed her hair off her shoulders. "I should go check on him."
Joe nodded and stuffed the rest of the cookie in his mouth. "'kay."
"Joe?" He looked up at her. "Thanks."
With a sigh, he sank into the cushions and watched as she climbed the stairs. Crisis averted. Good. His fingers brushed the smooth porcelain of the plate and found only crumbs. Instantly, he tensed. The cookies were gone. Kara's going to kill me. His eyes closed as his head tipped back.
Footsteps came from the kitchen. "You ate them all, didn't you?" Kara's voice had a hard edge to it.
Better take my lumps, Joe thought. "Yeah. But you love me anyway, right?" There was no answer. Not good. His eyes cracked open. "Right?"
Kara stood over him, a chocolate smear on her cheek. "I guess so." She leaned down until her lips were brushing his. "But your mom saved me some cookies, so right now, I love her more."
"Why, you..." With a swift motion, he reached up, grabbed Kara's waist, and pulled her onto his lap. "How about now?"
She shook her head, her nose rubbing his. "Nope."
With one hand behind her head, he moved his lips closer to hers, kissing her deeply. His other hand moved up under her shirt, sliding along the smooth skin of her her back. He broke the kiss. "Now?"
"I may need a bit more convincing." Her voice was husky, her breathing unsteady. "Maybe you should try again."
He pulled her even closer. "Maybe I will," he said, his own voice sounding breathy in his ears. He leaned toward her.
"Joseph Paul Hardy!" Laura Hardy's voice rang through the living room like a gong. Kara jumped from Joe's lap, straightening her shirt as she moved, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "Is this how I raised you?"
"Sorry." Joe kept his eyes down. "I wasn't thinking..."
"No," his mother agreed, "you weren't." He jerked his head up, surprised at the amusement in her voice. "But I imagine the extra week of doing dishes will give you time with that."
Joe's eyes shot to Kara, who stood with her fists clenched, her expression triumphant. "Yes! All three names! And it's still the first day." An evil grin formed on her face. "At this rate, I may get a month free from dishwashing. This is great."
Joe groaned. "Yeah. Great." He looked from his mother to his girlfriend. "I think I'll turn in now."
"That's probably a good idea, dear. You tend to get in less trouble when you're asleep." Laura gave him a hug, patting him on the arm as she did so. "I'm heading upstairs myself. I'll see you in the morning."
"I like your mother," Kara said, as she moved closer and wrapped her arms around his waist. Joe snorted in response. "And she's right. You do get in less trouble when you're asleep."
"Go ahead. Rub it in."
Kara reached up with both hands, placing her fingers on either side of his head. "So maybe we should see what kind of trouble you can get in before you fall asleep." The grin came back, but with a softer edge.
Joe blinked at her once or twice as the meaning behind her words came clear. "So, this trouble. Will it be worth a week of dishes?"
"A week and two days," Kara corrected, then she pulled her head down to his and kissed him until he had trouble breathing. "And yes."
"So, I guess I'll have something to be thankful for tomorrow, right?"