Author's notes and disclaimer at end
"He got it."
"No he didn't."
"He so did."
"I'm telling you, Joe, he's short."
Both brothers stared intently at the flat-screen TV as the referee brought out the bright orange chains, stretching them from the line of scrimmage. The point of the post came down, right next to the football on the ground. Then the post was pulled forward, and the chain extended another two inches, past the nose of the ball. Joe was swearing before the referee had even completed the hand signal indicating that the Patriots were short of a first down.
"Told you." Frank's look was smug. "You're getting the beers."
Joe grumbled as he pushed himself out of the overstuffed leather recliner, stalking out of the room in the direction of the kitchen. Frank grinned to himself, raising his arms over his head as he stretched his sock-clad feet towards the arm rest of the sofa. He was lying on the couch in their family den in a worn T-shirt and comfortable flannel pajamas, relieving himself of the mind-numbing boredom that he had experienced since he had been released from the hospital by watching Sunday afternoon football with his brother. Frank winced as his stretching pulled at the scar tissue on his chest underneath his shirt. It had been almost a month since his surgery, and although his wound had healed, the area was still tender. His doctors still had him on bed rest, so the Bureau had granted him a medical leave of absence. Joe, on the other hand, hadn't been so lucky. Burr had gotten him a month's leave so that he could be at home with his family, but the Bureau wasn't willing to give him more time off than that, given the way the brothers had taken off without a word to anyone in the first place. Joe was scheduled to return to work the next day, which was why he was taking full advantage of his last day off in Bayport relaxing with Frank watching football.
It was still amazing to Frank that a month had already gone by since everything had happened. Waking up in the hospital and seeing his friends and family all there had been nothing short of incredible. And to see that his father was alive and well, after thinking that he had been killed in the explosion of the train…there were no words to describe the sense of relief and gratitude that had gone through him. And Nancy…he could still remember the gut-clenching fear that he had felt when he saw Krieger point the gun at her, when he heard that bullet go off. He didn't remember moving, never actually recognized the command that had gone from his brain to his legs to propel him towards her, to take her out of the line of fire. All that he could recall was the certainty that had gone through him that he couldn't let anything happen to her. Seeing her in his hospital room after he had woken up, alive and in one piece, had made it all worthwhile. He knew she was upset with him for putting his own life at risk to save hers. They had never gotten a chance to talk about it after that brief interlude in his room when their friends and family had been there. But his feelings about what he had done hadn't changed. He wasn't ready to lose her, not when they were just starting to rebuild their friendship, and possibly something more. And if it came down to it, he would always do whatever it took to keep her safe. That was something she'd just have to understand.
"Here." Joe had re-entered the room, waving a bottle of beer in Frank's face and shaking him out of his thoughts. Frank grabbed it, the cool condensation instantly dampening his hand. Joe plopped back down on the recliner, crossed his ankles, and took a long, satisfying drag of his beer. He was the epitome of Sunday afternoon laziness, in a faded blue T-shirt, gray basketball shorts, and worn cotton socks with a hole at the bottom of the left one. In his opinion, there was just no better way to end the weekend than a cold beer and a good game of football. Especially considering he'd be flying back to D.C the next day to return to work, and most likely facing the music for all of their recent actions. While lucky Frank got to stay home. Well, not exactly lucky -- he had been shot, after all.
The thought had Joe glancing over at his brother, then frowning as he realized Frank had set his beer down on the coffee table, untouched.
"What's wrong? You're the one that made me get up and go get you that beer."
"Yeah." Frank looked at the brown bottle wistfully. "I forgot that I'm still on pain medication. I'm not so sure that I should be drinking alcohol, even if it is just beer."
Joe scowled, turning back to the television screen, but no longer focusing on the game. For the past four weeks, he had refrained from having any sort of conversation with his brother about what had happened that day out in Montana. They had given their statements to the police, they had chatted aimlessly in Frank's hospital room when Joe got his turn to visit with him. They had even talked about his injury, about Frank's recovery process. But never once had Joe said anything to his brother about the myriad of emotions he had gone through when Frank had been shot, or how torn up it made him feel to see his brother weakened so much. Joe had helped his older brother through it all, even though both of his parents were there and more than willing to lend a hand. He was the one who had taken charge of his brother's care when he got out of the hospital, helping him change his clothes when his wound was still too painful to do it himself, driving him around when Frank was going stir-crazy and just needed to get out of the house. And he had never said a word. But now, Frank's simple comment about his medication somehow had taken a wrecking ball to the mental dam that Joe had put up to keep all of his messy emotions from spewing out. Maybe it was because Joe was going back to D.C. the next day and wouldn't see his brother for a while. Or maybe because it was just time to say the things that needed to be said.
"Touchdown!" Frank cheered at the television as the running back made it into the brightly painted end zone.
"You nearly died."
Frank turned to stare blankly at his brother, his brain not quite catching up with the abrupt change in conversation.
"You scared the hell outta me, Frank." Anger was bubbling now, just under the surface, anger that Joe hadn't even been aware of. But it was fear that was fuelling that anger, a deep-seated fear that had never really been voiced between the brothers, that one might lose the other and somehow have to go on alone. And Joe had had to stare that fear in the face when Frank was in the hospital, and he hadn't realized until now how much that had truly shaken him up.
"I really want to be mad at you. I want to be mad at you for stepping in front of that bullet, for knowing that you would be shot and doing it anyway. I want to be mad at you for being reckless with your life that way." Joe took a deep breath as his brother watched him silently, and he knew that Frank was letting him get it out now that he had started.
"But I'm not mad. Because I know why you did it. Because, as I told Nancy, I would have done the same, as would she if the roles had been reversed. But dammit, Frank, don't you dare ever make me go through something like that again."
Frank was silent for another moment, then he nodded. "Okay," he said simply. Joe met his brother's solemn gaze, was calmed by the steady, reassuring look. He gave a firm, final nod of his own. "Okay," he echoed. Joe rose to his feet once again, the churning in his stomach now due to hunger rather than messy emotions. He headed towards the doorway of the den, stopping at the threshold to turn and look at his brother, who was now staring up at the ceiling pensively. The serious look in Joe's blue eyes turned to one of mischief.
"You know, your doctor said you should be off bed rest soon. I hear River Heights is real pretty this time of year. You sure you don't want me to book you a flight?"
A slow smile spread across Frank's face. "No, but you could toss me that phone."
Joe grinned, grabbing the cordless phone off the nearby table. "Sure thing, big brother."
Nancy stood at the low stone wall, gazing out at the choppy water below her. The icy wind off the bay whipped her reddish blond hair into her face, the strands obscuring her vision and tickling her cheeks. But she kept her hands tucked firmly in the pockets of her wool coat, opting to keep them warm rather than attempt to tame her erstwhile hair. The Golden Gate bridge stood before her in all its glory, set against a backdrop of swirling violet and gold as the sun progressed in its slow descent into the night sky. The island of Alcatraz was off to her left, its peaceful appearance belying its sordid past. The water of the bay had taken on a grayish tint from the darkening sky, the rough waves beating against the far shore of the city.
It was a view she had seen before, most memorably on a case that, in its own way, had led her back here again. When Frank had called her in River Heights two weeks ago and suggested that they meet, she in turn had suggested San Francisco. She had had time to think, almost too much of it, after her return from Montana. Her father had returned to work, but Nancy had found herself reluctant to return to school immediately and be away from her father. Which was silly, she knew, because he was a grown man, and she was a grown woman, but she had just needed to stay close, to return to the comfort of home for a while and be close to him and Hannah. So she had spoken with her professors, and they had agreed to let her make up the hours in the summer. Which allowed her to be home, but left her with nothing to keep her busy but her own thoughts. And as she had reflected on everything that had transpired, she had realized that even though Fenton and Carson had been found and Lerner was behind bars, there was still a mystery to be solved. Jack Lerner had been responsible for kidnapping their fathers and killing innocent people, crimes that had earned him the life sentence that he had been served. But the fact remained that his wife had been killed under suspicious circumstances, and although her death may have triggered all of Lerner's crimes, she deserved justice just like anyone else. So when Frank had called Nancy and suggested that they meet, she had proposed the idea of paying a visit to the prison in San Francisco where Laurie Lerner had been held. Frank had readily agreed, and they had arrived in the Bay City the previous evening.
The truth, once the red tape and bureaucracy had been pushed aside, had been surprisingly easy to find. At first, the warden of the prison had refused to entertain the possibility that Laurie's death had been anything but an accident, likely because he wanted to deny his own negligence in overlooking the matter. But Nancy and Frank had pushed, and she had even had Carson call one of his contacts in the District Attorney's office in San Francisco. It was the added pressure from the D.A.'s office that finally had the warden reluctantly interviewing his own staff to determine which inmates Laurie had had trouble with. Once a list of names had been compiled, those women had been interviewed. Of the four, only one had cracked under the pressure applied by the warden, but it had been enough. She had confessed to it all, how she had deliberately distracted Laurie with conversation so she wouldn't notice the approach of the other women, how they had waited for a vehicle to approach before shoving her out into the road, how they had told the officers at the scene that Laurie had tripped and fallen into the path of the oncoming truck. The D.A.'s office was now pressing charges, and it was safe to say that those four women would not be seeing the outside of a jail cell for a long, long time.
Nancy felt something inside herself settle at the thought. This was what had been missing, she realized. Not just the feeling of solving a mystery, but of knowing that she had been able to help bring those who had done wrong to justice, to have found answers for those who needed them. By not taking cases after her breakup with Ned, this was what she had lost. And now it felt like that missing piece of herself had been found again.
Nancy turned around, facing Frank, who had just returned after stepping away for a call with his brother. Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, because he gave her a quizzical look.
"What were you thinking about, Nan?"
She smiled softly in response. "About finding things that were lost. About finding you."
Frank's brown eyes were solemn. "I never went anywhere, Nancy."
"I know you didn't. But I did. I went away from you, from detective work. From things that mattered most to me. And I realize now how pointless it all was." She finally brushed the strands of hair away from her face, wanting to see him clearly now, as she said this. "I was so hurt when Ned left me. He blamed my detective work for causing the rift between us, and I think maybe, I did too."
Frank made a gesture, as if to speak, but Nancy stopped him with a slight shake of her head.
"You said to me before that to love someone is to love them for who they are, not despite it. I think that's what was always missing in my relationship with Ned. We loved each other, but on some intrinsic level, we never truly understood each other. There was a part of me, the part that thrives on mysteries and being a detective, that he just could never fully accept. And I could never understand how he could be such an important part of every aspect of my life except that one. With Ned, I never could quite find the right balance of being a woman and being a detective."
Nancy reached for Frank's hand, and he entwined his fingers with hers. She looked down at their joined hands, then back up at him, her blue eyes brilliant.
"With you, I'm both. I'm me. It's liberating."
"Nancy." Impossibly moved, he lifted his free hand to her face, brushing away another errant strand of titian hair before stroking her cheek. He held her gaze with his.
"For as long as I've known you, you've been this brilliant force in my life. A friend, a confidant, a partner. Someone I trust with my life. There's always been a connection between us, Nancy. I tried to chalk it up to just chemistry, an attraction between two people who often faced dangerous situations together. I had Callie, and you had Ned. But the truth of the matter is, it was much more than that. It was a…recognition. A recognition of finding someone who I was in tune with on every level, who challenged my mind, who stirred my heart. I had never felt that way before, Nancy, and I haven't since then. What I had with Callie was special, and I'll always remember it, but this, what we have, I think it's something that you find once in a lifetime, and that only if you're really, really lucky. I don't know about you, but I don't want to lose it. I don't want to lose you."
"Frank." She eased his name past the tightness in her throat, cleared it to make room for more. "You're not going to lose me. In fact, you might be seeing a lot more of me soon."
She smiled at his querying look. "When you were in the hospital, I had a chat with A.D. Burr. After reprimanding me for impersonating a federal agent and telling me that I was lucky that he wasn't sending me to jail for it, he offered me a position at the Bureau once I finish school."
Frank's brown eyes shone hopefully. "Are you going to take it?"
"I didn't give him a definitive answer then, but I've had a chance to think about it. And I'm going to do it. It's something that I've always wanted to do, and it feels right." She smiled, her eyes sparkling. "And it has the added benefit of letting me be closer to you."
Frank returned her smile. "I'm glad, Nancy. Not just because you're going to be close by, but because you're doing something that you want to do."
"Me too," she said softly. "On both counts." A sudden, strong gust of wind came off the bay, cutting through her coat, making her shiver.
"Cold?" Frank asked, automatically wrapping his arms around her and pulling her closer. To his surprise, she giggled in response. When he gave her a questioning look, she arched one slender eyebrow. "You do realize that's what you always ask me right before you kiss me, don't you?"
Frank started to pull away, an embarrassed flush rising to his face. "I didn't…I mean…I wasn't using that as an excuse to…" Nancy interrupted his stammering by grabbing the lapels of his coat and tugging him back to her. "I didn't say I was complaining, Hardy, just making an observation." She gave him an impish smile. "But just for the sake of changing things up, how about I kiss you this time?"
As Nancy rose to her tiptoes and her lips met his, Frank decided that change was a very, very good thing indeed.
A/N: It's hard to say this, but this story is finally complete. I can't begin to describe how bittersweet of a feeling that is. I've been working on this story for over two years now, and it's been such an incredible experience. Never in a million years did I dream that I would receive such wonderful support or find such amazing people in this fandom. Because of this, I feel like I've had the opportunity to really improve and grow as a writer, and it's thanks to all of you -- to your reviews, your words of encouragement, your suggestions and comments. Knowing that there was such a remarkable group of people out there reading this story continually challenged me to do my best, and to edit and re-edit until I could finally feel satisfied that I was posting something worth reading. Which brings me to my betas. I have been absolutely honored to have some of the best writers in this fandom beta for me throughout the course of this story -- some have been with me from the very beginning, and some I met along the way -- all have been immensely invaluable. To Msnancydrew (now supernaturalsam), TesubCalle, katie janeway, Lightwarai, rosa lunae, and Shallowbunny: thank you. Thank you for your insightful comments, your unwavering support, and your constant encouragement. This story would not be what it is without all of you, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to get to know each and every one of you.
Best wishes to everyone for a happy holidays and a bright new year!
Disclaimer: There have been many characters in this story that I have borrowed from the books, and sadly, I can't claim to own any of them. But I am grateful to the writers and publishing company that created these amazing characters, for giving them longevity so that generation after generation has been able to enjoy them, and so that us writers can weave our own stories and imaginations around them.