A/N: Here is the final chapter. Hope you enjoy it. And thank you to everyone who took the time to read! It was very much appreciated! Since I celebrate Christmas – MERRY CHRISTMAS! But whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope it's a happy one for you. :-)

I'll Be Home For Christmas

Chapter 12

Joe shifted, inhaling sharply at the steady throbbing in his shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw his brother sprawled in the chair next to the bed, his long legs stretched out in front of him. "You're not Mom," he mumbled. When he'd awakened during the night when the pain medication had worn off, his mother had been sitting next to him, watching him worriedly.

"Gee, you don't miss a thing, do you?" Frank grinned, leaning forward. "Merry Christmas, bro," he said, his voice softer, huskier.

"Thanks," Joe smiled. "Merry Christmas. And thanks for the save."

"Thanks for the distraction," Frank responded. "How ya feelin'?"

"Like crap," Joe replied, patting the bed with his left hand.

"Here," Frank offered, picking up the remote control for the bed and handing it to him. After watching Joe fumble with the buttons and then curse at the device, Frank reached to take it back. "Let me do it," he said and slowly elevated the head of the bed until Joe nodded.

"How's Van?" Joe asked, his blue eyes clouding over in concern. "She didn't get hurt did she? Son of a—" Joe bit off what he was going to say. "Threw her in the truck, threw out onto the ground…"

"She's fine," Frank assured him. "Worried about you. I talked to her this morning. She can't wait to see you."

"Mmmmm…me, too. How's that guard?" Joe eyed his brother worriedly.

"Dad talked to Chief Collig this morning," Frank replied. "They did surgery on him last night. The bullet missed his heart by a few inches. Pierced his lung, though. He's still critical but they're pretty optimistic that he'll make a full recovery."

"Good," Joe nodded and squirmed, trying to get comfortable and finally giving up. "How long do I have to wear this thing?" he complained, tugging on the sling cradling his right arm. "And when can I go home? Told that doctor I wanted to go home today," Joe muttered. "And where's Mom?"

Frank stared at him, shaking his head and chuckling. "Any special order you want me to answer those in?" he asked, getting a dirty look from Joe in reply. "Mom and Dad went to get coffee. Mom stayed with you all night. Dad and I just got here about fifteen minutes ago.

"The doctor hasn't made his rounds yet this morning so can't I answer the other two questions for you, although I could probably make an educated guess if you want," Frank offered.

"No, thanks," Joe replied darkly. "I just wanna go home! I mean, it's Christmas! Nobody should have to be stuck in a hospital on Christmas. That's just…just…" Joe snorted and sank back against the pillows, unable to find a word to adequately express his displeasure.

Just then the door opened and Laura and Fenton walked in. "Joe, you're awake!" Laura exclaimed, a smile lighting her face. Immediately she put her coffee down on the rolling table and hurried to Joe's side.

"Hey, Mom." Joe smiled as she kissed him on the cheek. "Merry Christmas."

She cupped his face with one hand and simply stared at him. "Yes," she said softly. "It is a merry Christmas…a very, merry Christmas."

Fenton walked to the opposite side of the bed and squeezed Joe's left arm affectionately. "How are you feeling?"

Joe grimaced and huffed unhappily. "Crappy, but I'd feel a whole lot better if I was home."

With uncanny timing it seemed, the door opened and Dr. Carruthers walked in, smiling at the Hardys. "Good morning, Joe," he greeted his patient. "Merry Christmas."

"Can I go home now?" Joe demanded, forgoing any pleasantries.

"One track mind," Frank muttered, shaking his head. "Good morning, Dr. Carruthers. Merry Christmas."

The doctor grinned good-naturedly at Joe's rather curt greeting and offered Frank and his parents warm holiday wishes. As he checked Joe's chart and then took his pulse, Joe continued, determined he was not going to spend Christmas Day in the hospital.

"I wanna go home," Joe said adamantly. "TODAY!"

Dr. Carruthers shook his head, "Joe, less than ten hours ago you were in surgery—"

"And you said we'd talk about it after my surgery but you just disappeared," he accused, jutting his chin forward. When the doctor looked at him in surprise Joe smiled triumphantly. "See? You thought I didn't hear that part, or wouldn't remember it." He shook his head. "I wasn't that out of it, ya know."

"Apparently not," the doctor agreed, bemused and tried to recall if he'd ever had a more difficult patient. Sighing he tried again. "Joe, you've lost a lot of blood—"

"And you put it all back, see?!" Joe protested, pointing to the now empty bag hanging from the IV stand.

Carruthers sighed again, fearing he was trying to fight a battle he couldn't possibly win. "No, we didn't put it all back. We gave you enough to stabilize you. Your own body will produce the rest of it. But that takes time, Joe. Weeks to get your blood volume up to normal levels."

"Well I know you're not going to keep me here for weeks, so there's no reason I can't go home….Now!" Joe countered, knowing he had the upper hand.

Carruthers shook his head and looked towards Fenton and Laura Hardy.

Knowing how worried his parents had been, Joe panicked, thinking the doctor might convince them he should stay. Pulling out all the stops, Joe gave his best last-ditch effort to manipulate the situation to his own advantage. "Mom," he whined, turning pleading blue eyes on his mother. "It's Christmas! They took the bullet out, they gave me blood, they gave me IV fluids…the only thing they want me to do now is rest. And I can do that at home." Joe sat up a little, looking at Laura sadly. He really did just want to be home with his family on Christmas and the thought that that might not happen suddenly overwhelmed him. "I promised you, Mom…I promised I'd be home for Christmas…" he said softly. "Please…"

Laura stared at him and he thought he saw her chin quiver for a moment. She continued holding his gaze even as she spoke to the doctor. "Do you just want to keep him here as a precaution? For observation? Or is there something specific you're worried about?" she asked.

The doctor let out a long breath, apparently realizing his best ally had just defected to the other side. "No, nothing specific," he admitted. "It really is just precautionary." He looked from Joe to Laura and back again, throwing his hands up in defeat. "Fine, I give up. He can go home."

"Yes!" Joe exclaimed, then added a mumbled "Sorry," after getting a look from his father.

"You need to make sure he rests today," Carruthers explained. "ALL DAY," he emphasized looking at Joe meaningfully.

"Rest all day. Got it," Joe promised, clumsily crossing his heart with his left hand.

"I'll give you a prescription for pain killers and antibiotics and a few samples to get you through today since there are no pharmacies open." He pulled a prescription pad from his pocket and began scribbling. "And don't try to be a tough guy," he said to Joe, glancing up when Frank snorted softly. "Take the painkillers. One every eight hours."

"Promise," Joe agreed.

Carruthers shook his head and couldn't help but grin. "Is he always like this?" he asked no one in particular.

"Pretty much, yeah," Frank replied. "Annoying, isn't he?"

Carruthers looked up just in time to see Joe stick his tongue out at his older brother and laughed out loud. "Here," he handed the two prescriptions to Laura. "He'll probably sleep most of the day. Aftereffects of the general anesthesia and side effect of the painkiller. If he's talking to you one minute and drops off to sleep the next, don't worry, that's normal." Turning to Joe, he continued, "Keep that sling on and the arm completely immobile for the next few days. Don't get it wet. You'll need to make an appointment with your regular physician for later this week so he can check and make sure it's healing properly, although I really don't anticipate you'll have any problems."

Stepping to the side of the bed, Carruthers smiled at Joe and offered his hand. "Joe, you've definitely been one of my more…entertaining patients," he grinned. "Good luck, and have a Merry Christmas."

Joe shook the doctor's hand awkwardly with his left hand. "Thank you," he said sincerely. "For everything. Merry Christmas."

After a short round of "Thank you's", "Goodbye's" and holiday greetings from the rest of the Hardys, Dr. Carruthers left, leaving the family alone.

Joe started to push the sheet back, anxious to get home when he stopped and groaned. "Any chance my clothes didn't get cut to shreds?" he asked hopefully.

"Sorry, son," Fenton replied. "Whatever they didn't cut away was pretty well covered with blood. Not much they could salvage."

"Oh, man!" Joe wailed. "Now I have to wait while someone goes home and gets me some clothes," he pouted dramatically.

Frank sighed and rolled his eyes. "Guess that means me, huh? Okay," he said, heading for the door. "Be back in half an hour or so."

He quickly left, presumably to drive back to the Hardy home, so when Frank returned five minutes later Joe, Laura and Fenton all looked at him, puzzled.

"What's wrong?" Joe asked. "You're supposed to be going home to get me some clothes."

Frank smiled like a Cheshire cat and pulled a small duffel bag out from behind his back. "I packed it before we left this morning and threw it in the trunk," he explained in response to the three confused looks he was getting.

"You were that sure Joe would be released today?" Fenton asked.

"Oh, yeah. Not a doubt in my mind." Frank grinned. "That doctor is way too nice. He didn't stand a chance against Joe's relentless whining."

Joe heard his parents trying very hard not to laugh, and scowled at his brother. "Just gimme the stupid bag," he demanded, holding out his left hand.

Frank hesitated a moment as if he were going to say something, then shrugged and put the duffel on the bed easily within Joe's reach. Muttering under his breath, Joe futilely tried to unzip the bag several times. Unable to grip it and open it with his left hand, and with his dominant right hand virtually useless, he succeeded only in flinging the bag across the bed and onto the floor.

"Need a little help there, bro?" Frank asked, his face a picture of innocence.

"How humiliating," Joe grumbled, gracing his parents with a glare as they now laughed out loud. "Can't even dress myself."

"Personally, I can't wait for dinner," Frank said mysteriously, hefting the bag onto the end of the bed and unzipping it.

Joe narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. He had a feeling he wasn't going to find Frank's thoughts on Christmas dinner at all funny.

"Watching you try to eat with one hand…and your left hand at that! Should be pretty entertaining." He stopped and put a finger on his chin, looking up at the ceiling for a moment. "Hmmm….Wonder if I could sell tickets…"

"Hey!" Joe cried out, wishing Frank were close enough so Joe could smack him.

Spurred on by his parents' intermittent snickering, Frank continued musing aloud. "We could just scoot your chair over really close to Mom so she could help you eat, like when you were little. You're probably too big for the high chair now, though," he said, pulling clothes out of the bag and neatly laying them on the bed. Frank glanced innocently at Fenton and Laura, making sure he had their full attention. "I mean, a guy's gotta eat, right?" He then turned his eyes on Joe and smiled wickedly. "Even if he has to be spoon-fed by his mommy."

Joe's mouth dropped open and his face contorted into a look of horrified disbelief. For a moment, he was rendered speechless at the picture painted by Frank's speculations.

No longer able to hold it in, both Fenton and Laura burst out laughing, Fenton wiping a few stray tear from his eyes. Joe looked at his brother, trying to conjure up his best glare. "You're…you're…evil! Just plain…evil!" he accused, causing his parents to begin laughing anew.

"I'll wait out in the hall," Laura said, still laughing softly. Halfway out the door she paused and turned back to look first at Joe and then Frank. "Go easy on him, Frank. After all, it is Christmas."

oooOOOooo

Using his left hand, Joe awkwardly adjusted the blanket covering him and snuggled deep into the sofa, careful not to jostle his right arm. Staring at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, he decided being an invalid at home on his own couch on Christmas, was infinitely better than being stuck in a cold, sterile and impersonal hospital room. Yet as happy as he was to be home, he found that Dr. Carruthers' predictions had been right on target. After getting dressed with some assistance from his father and brother, Joe had dozed in the backseat of the car on the way home. Once they'd arrived back at the house, Laura had fixed breakfast at Joe's request. Not having eaten since lunch the day before, he was starved.

However, the simple act of eating breakfast had tired him out and he'd gone from trading jabs with Frank over waffles one minute to suddenly feeling as if he could sleep for the next ten years. His mother had gotten him settled in on the couch, where he preferred to be rather than alone up in his room. At least down here he could gaze at the Christmas tree and hear the comforting sounds of his family as they bustled about the other rooms in preparation for Christmas dinner. Joe had spoken briefly to Vanessa when he arrived home and she and Andrea would be joining the Hardy family later on for dinner.

As Joe lay staring at the tree, Laura quietly appeared and knelt beside the couch, smiling at him. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," Joe replied, yawning.

"Why don't you get some sleep then," she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. As she stood, Joe reached out and caught her hand. "What is it, honey?" she asked. "Do you need something?"

"Not right now," Joe replied. "But when Vanessa gets here…" Joe tugged on her hand, pulling her towards him and whispered in her ear. She listened and smiled, then nodded and left the room.

Joe closed his eyes and just as he felt himself falling asleep he heard someone moving about in the room. Forcing his eyes open, he turned his head and saw Frank settling himself on the recliner, a book in hand.

"Hey," Frank said in greeting. "Thought I'd start on the book Callie gave me." He held it up for Joe to see. "Unless my being here will bother you…I can go upstairs to my room."

Joe stared at his brother and smiled, knowing full well why Frank chose to read his book in the living room with Joe rather than upstairs – alone – where he usually preferred to read. Joe suddenly shivered, remembering how many times the previous evening he'd wondered if he'd ever share another Christmas with his family. Normally, he hated everyone hovering over him but today, knowing how close he came to losing everything, there was nothing he wanted more.

"Nope," Joe said closing his eyes. "Won't bother me at all. In fact…I'd kinda like it…knowing you're right here if I need you." In seconds, Joe drifted off to sleep, missing Frank's soft reply.

"And I always will be, bro…"

oooOOOooo

Joe inhaled, the scent of roasting turkey and candied yams bringing a smile to his face. He lay on the couch, half-asleep and half-awake, simply enjoying the sounds and smells of his favorite day of the year. As his sleep-fogged mind began to clear, Joe got the very distinct feeling someone was watching him. Slowly he opened his eyes and saw Vanessa staring down at him, her eyes filled with a varying mix of emotions, the most prominent being love.

"Hey, Babe," Joe murmured, reaching out for her. "Merry Christmas."

Vanessa grasped his hand and leaned down, kissing him tenderly. "Merry Christmas, yourself." She carefully helped Joe to a sitting position and when he held out his left arm expectantly, eagerly settled on the couch next to him, snuggling into his embrace. As Joe kissed her again, he heard someone moving about behind them, placing something on the end table, and then the sounds of fading footsteps.

As they slowly separated, Joe glanced over Vanessa's shoulder and smiled. "Can you hand me one of those glasses?" he asked, gesturing behind her.

"What glasses?" Vanessa asked, confused. She turned and looked over her shoulder and gasped. A small tray sat on the end table holding two glasses of eggnog. Turning back to Joe, she had tears in her eyes. "You remembered," she said, her voice catching.

"Mmm-hmmm," Joe smiled. "Now tell me again how this tradition works?"

Vanessa picked up the two glasses and handed him one. "We each say what we were most thankful for in the past year," she explained, her voice still shaking with emotion.

"Okay." Joe held his glass up but stared straight into Vanessa's eyes as if he could see to very bottom of her soul. "I'm most thankful for one thing – you."

Vanessa's eyes welled with tears, but she too held her glass aloft. "And I'm so thankful that you're still here with me, alive and well," she stopped for a moment, unable to continue. "I was so scared, Joe. So scared I was going to lose you…"

Gingerly Joe leaned past her, putting both their glasses back on the tray. As he sat up, Vanessa brushed her fingertips across his cheek. Joe swallowed hard and looked away. He knew what had happened last night could have turned out so very differently. He'd lost Iola Morton, his first love, and had it not been for Vanessa entering his life, he probably would have lost his sanity then, too. The idea that he could have lost Vanessa was more than he could deal with. What happened the previous evening made Joe realize just how much Vanessa meant to him. She was more than a long-term girlfriend…so much more…and he had to know she would never put herself in the dangerous position she had last night, just for him.

"What is it?" Vanessa asked, her blue-grey eyes clouding in concern.

"I need you to promise me something," he said, softly.

"What?" she asked, her eyes now wary.

Joe looked away and sighed. She wasn't going to like it; he knew that. But still, he had to ask.

"What you did last night…please….I need you to promise me, you'll never do that again. If I tell you to run, you run and don't look back," his voice faltered and shook as he thought of what could have happened. "Promise me – please – that you will never, ever put yourself in that kind of danger for me again."

Vanessa sat back and stared at him for a long time. Finally she took his left hand and held it in both of hers, clutched to her chest. Her lower lip quivered. When she spoke her voice was soft, but held a conviction that came straight from her heart. "I'm sorry, Joe. I can't. I...I just can't do that."

Joe immediately started to protest, but Vanessa pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. She took a deep breath and continued. "I know what happened to Iola still haunts you. I know what happened last night terrifies you. It all turned out okay, but it could just as easily have gone so wrong." Reaching up with one hand she cupped his face and gently stroked his cheek with her thumb. "I love you Joe, but I'm sorry. I can't tell you what you want to hear. It would be a lie. If the situation had been reversed and I was the one who'd been shot, would you have left me?"

Joe rolled his eyes even knowing it was a ridiculously rhetorical question.

"Then please…" Vanessa begged him, tears filling her eyes. "Don't ask me to do it."

Joe reached out and wrapped his left arm around her. Pulling her to him he buried his face in her shoulder and prayed he wouldn't completely lose it. Apparently sensing he was close to emotional overload, Vanessa held him gently and stroked his hair. For several minutes Joe didn't move, needing the closeness they shared more than he needed to breathe. Finally, he pulled back and gazed into her eyes. Reaching out he brushed a long strand of hair off her shoulder.

"Can I ask you something else?" he requested, this time his voice holding a hint of mischief.

"I don't know," Vanessa eyed him suspiciously. "Will I regret it?"

Joe raised his eyebrows as if to say 'I don't know, but you might.' Vanessa sighed heavily and nodded her assent.

"Last night, towards the end there I was pretty out of it. When that bozo was using me for a human shield," Joe stopped and eyed his girlfriend for a moment. "Was I hallucinating or did you really shove a gun in his face?"

Vanessa's cheeks flushed red and she looked away in embarrassment.

"You did," Joe muttered, chuckling under his breath.

"Well," Vanessa defended herself. "Frank couldn't get a clear shot at him without hitting you, too! It was the only thing I could think of…and it worked!"

Joe laughed again and stared at her, a twinkle in his eye. "So you're sort of like my own little Dirty Harriet, waving that gun all over the place," he teased, causing Vanessa to turn a bright crimson. "It's kinda kinky though," he said huskily, leaning close. "I think I like it," he finished pressing his lips to hers in a rather lengthy kiss.

Joe thought he heard the doorbell in the background but was infinitely more interested in kissing his girlfriend than he was in finding out who was at the door. A moment later he heard a hearty laugh and a vaguely familiar voice. "I see you're takin' my advice, sonny. Good for you!"

Joe and Vanessa jumped apart and turned to see the kindly old couple who had befriended them in the supermarket checkout line. Behind them Andrea Bender, Fenton, Laura and Frank were smiling and looking a bit emotional.

Vanessa gasped and jumped to her feet. Rushing forward she enveloped the elderly woman in a hug.

"Thank you!" she exclaimed, everyone able to make out the words muffled against the old woman's shoulder. "Thank you so much!" Vanessa pulled back and hugged the woman's husband, too. "I know you wanted to help us – tried to help us," she stopped then, her voice catching in her throat. "Thank you," she repeated, softly.

The elderly woman took Vanessa's hand and squeezed it tightly. "Oh, honey, I just wish we could have done more."

The old man shuffled towards the couch and perched on the arm, next to Joe. "That was a brave thing you did, son. Not many men would have done it." He stared at Joe and his eyes got misty. "I served in the army; World War Two. Was in the first wave to hit Normandy." He reached out and patted Joe on the back. "Woulda been damn proud to have you right there next to me."

"Thank you, sir," Joe said quietly, now feeling his own face grow hot.

The old man patted his back once more and stood up. "We just wanted to make sure you two were okay. Guess we should be going," he said almost reluctantly. He returned to his wife's side and took her elbow.

Joe quickly glanced at his mother and raised his eyebrows. Laura shrugged as if to say 'Why not?' As the couple turned to leave, Laura stopped them. "Would you like to stay and have dinner with us?" she asked hopefully. These people had wanted to help her son without a thought for themselves and she wanted to get to know them better; much better.

The elderly couple exchanged a glance and Laura got the distinct impression they would love to accept her invitation. "Really," she urged. "We'd all love for you to stay…that is unless you already have plans…"

"Well, we do have reservations at the Bayport Inn for dinner," the woman said, although she didn't sound all that excited about them.

"We could always call and cancel," her husband suggested. He turned to Fenton and Laura. "We have two boys of our own."

"Married boys," his wife smiled. "With kids of their own."

"But they're both in the military," the man easily picked up for her. "One's stationed in Germany and the other is in Japan. Couldn't make it home for Christmas this year," his voice trailed off sadly.

"Well, if you're not looking too forward to dinner at the Bayport Inn, we'd be honored if you'd stay and have Christmas dinner with us," Fenton requested.

"Please?" Vanessa asked.

The old man smiled at her and then glanced back at Joe. "I think we're the ones who'd be honored," he said softly. "We'd love to."

As Frank and Fenton quickly scrambled to add two more chairs and place settings to the table, Andrea and Vanessa took the coats from their last-minute guests and directed them towards the dining room. Laura helped Joe up from the couch and put an arm around his waist. As they turned to leave the room, a new CD began playing in the background. Mother and son stopped and looked at each other, momentarily frozen in time, listening to the song that this year had taken on a whole new meaning…

I'll be home for Christmas

You can count on me…

The End