Eight months later

Joe stood in the locker room tugging on his gloves. He was playing his first football match in eight months and it was liberating. He had spent months on the sidelines looking longingly at the players on the field and wishing he was out there with the team. He had spent many days agonizing over the very real possibility that he might have to give up football. God knew if not for Frank and his infinite patience he would be a basket of nerves probably admitted to the psychiatric ward for treatment. He smiled as he wondered how Frank had not wound up there with everything Joe had put him through and he once again thanked the god for giving him a brother like Frank.

He had read him like only a brother can, pushing him to the ends of his endurance when needed and holding back at other times. He had been there to hold him through the nightmares and cheer him on with the physiotherapy. Frank had given up almost all his spare time to be there for Joe and Joe knew that he owed an apology to Callie. He had taken Frank away from her even if not intentionally these last few months. And now when his day of reckoning had arrived he knew Frank would be there just as he had been always. True to his thoughts he heard the footsteps and knew it was Frank before he heard him.

"Joe" he heard his brother and turned to see the seriousness in Frank's face. "Hey Frank" he responded and was rewarded by a smile followed by "you alright? All set?". Joe nodded "I am all set and looking forward to it. Also a little nervous seeing as I haven't played in months" he said looking at his brother's serious expression. Frank nodded sagely "well, that is to be expected don't you think? Anyone would feel the same. But don't worry. You have worked hard to get here and you are in good form. But I want you to be clear on one thing" he said and Joe looked at him warily.

"What?" he asked knowing what was coming and sighed in resignation when Frank replied "if you are uncomfortable in the slightest I want you out of there. There's no point in undoing all the progress you have made for a match" in a tone that brooked no argument. Really, oblivious fathers were better than all knowing brothers sometimes. Joe groaned in protest "Frank…come on. I am playing after eight months" he pleaded but Frank remained firm until Joe acquiesced with a tiny "fine, I will sit it out if it starts getting uncomfortable. Happy?" he asked in a petulant tone.

Frank looked at him pointedly "I mean it Joe… I know how your version of being fine is" he said and Joe looked down. "I get it okay…now can I go to play?" he asked feeling antsy and Frank grinned. "Go…show them why they need you…brat" he said in a fond voice as he pushed Joe out the door.

Frank then joined his parents and friends at the stands where they had come to show their love and support for Joe. Frank was sitting next to Callie along with Chet, Tony and Iola. Biff was on the team and playing alongside Joe and Frank knew that the two of them made a formidable pair. Today's game already looked promising he thought as he glanced at Iola who was clapping the loudest out of them.

Looking at Iola, Frank sent a silent prayer of thanks for her presence. She had been exactly what was needed to pull Joe out from his sometimes depressed phases. She had been supportive and had been a major player in bringing Joe back to his original form. She had countered his bouts of moodiness with her bright sunshine personality and slowly but surely Joe had reverted back to his own bright self. The journey had not been easy for Joe physically and emotionally and Frank was glad that Joe had so much of support from different quarters.

The first couple of months especially had been very hard with nightmares hitting Joe with an intensity that even jolted Frank. Numerous nights had been spent with Frank talking Joe through his nightmares and keeping the positivity alive. Over the course of those nights certain things had come to light which made Frank want to kill Blaine all over again. They had made his little brother beg for food…wanted him to call them his master and mistress…and Frank had cried along with Joe at that particular piece of information. Something as basic as food, and they had tortured his brother for it. Thinking about it still made his blood boil and he unconsciously tensed until a light squeeze from Callie brought him back to awareness.

He turned to look at her with fondness. She had been amazing these last few months. She had really been a great support even when he had not been able to spend quality time with her. He knew that he had a lot to make up for and swore to give her the special attention she deserved now that Joe was back to normal. There had been times when she had simply sat by his side and allowed him to shed his own tears and gather his strength. She had been his strength when the world had demanded his. He knew he was fortunate to have her by his side and wowed to let he know how much he valued her love.

Looking around he caught sight of his parents and sighed. The last few months had taken their toll on them too. His father had read through Joe's deposition and even if he did not say anything aloud Frank had seen the light fade from his eyes. Fenton Hardy had been devastated and carried the guilt that he had been an indirect cause of everything his son had suffered. Frank had not really spoken to Fenton Hardy about any of it and was thankful for the reprieve. He really did not know what to say and felt distinctly wrong footed to be in the position of having to be the calm one when and if he spoke to his father.

Added to this was the fact that they still had not tracked down Katherine Blake and Frank knew that this was haunting Fenton Hardy. Well, truth be said it haunted even him and he did not want to know how it was affecting Joe. All that he knew was that Joe was completely blocking Katherine out. He had not asked much about her and was determined to forget that she even existed. It scared Frank as he could see that attempting to bury Katherine in his conscience was not exactly working out. However much Joe repressed the fact during the day he could not do the same at night and it showed in the night mares with a vengeance.

It would have been utterly horrible if Richard Cooper had been around when Joe was still dealing with Blake but thankfully he was out of the picture. The police had had no evidence to charge him either on his own or as an accomplice to Ethan and Frank had been worried that they would have to face him at school. But the abuse Ethan had perpetrated in the guise of Richard at Bayport High was held against him and he had been dismissed from the teaching position.

He had been told at some point that the man had moved to some place on the other coast and was pretending that any of this did not happen. He was continuing his academic pursuits again and Frank was relieved with that knowledge. It was too good for what he deserved but at this point Frank was happy to let him go. Their family could do without any reminders of Ethan Cooper and his father would have one headache less.

His mother on the other hand was someone he felt truly sorry for. While Joe had become his usual happy self he had not spoken one word of his ordeal with her. Frank was pretty sure that Joe had not even realized what it was doing to their mother and he wondered if he should have a talk to Joe about this at some point. He pondered over the issue a bit and decided that indeed he would mention it to Joe.

A sudden roar of the crowd and a shake by Callie suddenly broke through his reverie and he looked up to see Joe waving to where they were seated. Frank mentally slapped himself and waved back along with the others. Joe had apparently made some crowd worthy move and he had missed it. 'Concentrate on the match' he told himself and settled down to follow at least the rest of the game. Joe would kill him if he was not able to participate in his excited recounting of the game.

To the player's credit it was a good game with the teams being equally matched. But unfortunately the other team did not have Joe who was playing with a vengeance. He was in his element and Frank could see the adrenalin in Joe's every move. He was primed like an arrow and there was no stopping him, not in this game and Frank was already feeling sorry for the other team. They had no chance, not when Joe was playing the way he was. Soon the game was over in Bayport High's favor to no one's surprise and Frank got to his feet along with the others. He was grinning like a proud Cheshire cat he knew but then Joe had literally won the match for Bayport High all by himself. He was brilliant.

"Well, your mom and I will go home now. Frank, I guess you youngsters want to hang around a bit more?" Fenton Hardy asked and the group looked at each other. "We are going to 's dad, and will come home later. You carry on, I will let Joe know" Frank answered for the group. Fenton Hardy nodded saying "I guess you do need to celebrate" bid goodbye to the youngsters and followed Laura out of the stands.

Frank stretched and gestured to his friends to get moving "I will get Joe and we will meet you in the parking lot" he said and then reconsidered his options. "Or better still you guys head to the mall, I am sure Joe would want to shower before leaving and we will join you there" he suggested. The suggestion was met with agreement and soon it was just Frank making his way to the lockers.

He threaded his way through the crowd when suddenly there was a lady almost falling onto him. It was obvious she had tripped and was now holding onto him for balance. Frank instinctively reached out to steady the lady as she profusely apologized. "It's alright mam, are you okay?" he asked her. She looked up flustered "Yes, thank you" she replied as Frank smiled at her casting her only a cursory glance and gestured that she needed to move for him to get ahead.

"Sorry" she muttered in an embarrassed tone and stepped aside so that Frank could move toward the lockers. He quickly strode forward and was so focused on getting to Joe that he never once stopped to think about the lady. A striking lady in her late thirties, who was now staring at the locker with a mix of hatred and longing.

"Sorry Frank Hardy you are good but not as good as your brother" Katherine Blake muttered as she tossed the dyed black hair over her shoulders and fixed her gaze to where the lockers were. She then made her way to her car and quietly drove away none the wiser to her presence. There was something to be said for hiding in plain sight after all and it was just a matter of time that she would see Joe Hardy again.

Author notes: And that's a wrap. What started out as a story with maybe a maximum of twelve or thirteen chapters is now one with so much more. The credit goes entirely to those of you out there who kept pushing me to do more with your encouragement and nice words. So a humongous thank you to each and every one of you and I know I will miss seeing Candylou, MargaretA 66,bookworm4life,HNBFJRAY and a whole lot of others in my inbox. These are just names that come readily to mind…the guest (exactly) who was my hundredth reviewer….each one of you whom I have not named does not mean you are not thought of. You are and I sincerely hope to see all of you in my future posts too.

Take care, love kavitha.