A/N: I'm not a CSI buff nor a ballistics expert so I'm not entirely sure what Con testifies to as far as gunpowder patterns in this chapter is really feasible. If not… hey we're in Hardy-land; I take liberties. Sue me. That's my story and I'm sticking to it! ;-)

LOOK! We made it!! :D I hope this final chapter meets with everyone's expectations. As an avid fanfic reader myself, I know it's pretty much impossible to read a story and NOT have an idea or a hope as to how you'd like to see it end. Here's hoping I did not disappoint anyone.

THANK YOU to EVERYONE who took the time to read this story. I do hope you enjoyed it. :-)

Innocent

Chapter 31

Joe sat on the edge of the bed waiting for his father to return to the room. Since Fenton was the one who had signed Joe in to the Campbell Center, he was the only one permitted to sign him out. Staring blankly at the wall in front of him, Joe tried to come up with just the right words to apologize to his father. Knowing what his father had done for him so many years ago had changed Joe's perspective dramatically. The fact that his father had watched all those videos, when he could have simply taken the doctors word for it that Joe had not been molested, made it abundantly clear to Joe how much his father really did love him. It also made him wonder why his father had simply chosen to take the abuse Joe had been dishing out the last few days without telling him about the past. Joe thought about the day when he and Vanessa would have children and prayed he could be half as good a father to his children as his father had been to him.

"All ready?" Fenton Hardy's voice broke through the thoughts weighing heavily on Joe's mind. Joe looked up to see his father smiling at him.

'How can he even stand to look at me after the way I've treated him?' Joe thought with remorse and decided he wanted to do this now, before they left the hospital.

"Not quite. Can we talk for a minute, Dad?" Joe asked hopefully.

Fenton knew Joe was incredibly angry with him, for not telling him the truth as soon as the dreams had started. For refusing to sign Joe out of the hospital unless he agreed to outpatient therapy. He had wanted so badly to tell Joe how much therapy had helped him, but that would entail explaining the videos to Joe. Whenever he thought about doing that, all he could see was Joe sitting on the bathroom floor, lost in his own world of torture. Fenton was terrified of doing anything at all that might push Joe back to that point, no matter how slim the chance that it could happen again. He therefore chose to keep the dark secrets to himself rather than risk losing his son to that world of purgatory once more. Preparing himself for one of Joe's angry tirades, Fenton stood in front of his son and looked him in the eyes.

"Of course," Fenton forced a smile to his face.

Suddenly everything Joe had come up with to apologize to his father, all the words to express his guilt and remorse, caught in his throat. The tears he swore he would not cry rose to the surface and he was barely able to choke out the words he desperately needed to say. "I love you, Dad. And I'm sorry."

Fenton stared at Joe, shocked. He had expected a barrage of curses and angry words from his youngest son and didn't know quite how to react to this unexpected turn of events. He tentatively put a hand on Joe's shoulder, not knowing how his volatile son would interpret the gesture.

"You've been through hell, Joe. You don't have anything to apologize for."

"Yes, I do. I've treated you horribly. You've done nothing but try to love and protect me and I turned on you. God, Dad, I'm so sorry." Joe stared at his father with a look in his eyes that begged for forgiveness. "Can you forgive me?"

"Joe, you don't need to…"

"Please, Dad," Joe begged. "I need to apologize. I need to know you still love me even after the way I treated you."

Hearing the pleading note in Joe's voice, Fenton swallowed the lump in his throat. He was finding it hard to believe that his son with the heart of gold, so quick to anger and even quicker to forgive could think, even for a second, he had done anything that required an apology. "I'll always love you, son. Nothing you could say or do will ever change that."

Joe nodded, thanking God for his father. The father he knew he would be turning to for comfort frequently in the coming months. The father who was the only one who could even begin to know what he was going through.

"I'm curious, though," Fenton asked tentatively. "Why the change in attitude?"

Staring at his father, Joe decided the lies, the half-truths, the dark secrets had to end now. 'Forgive me, bro.'

"Frank told me about the videos," Joe said quietly.

Joe watched the color slowly drain from his father's face.

"He did what?" Fenton asked hoarsely.

"Please don't be mad at him, Dad," Joe said quickly, trying to repair the damage. 'Damn, why can't I do anything right!'

"I'm glad he told me. But…why didn't you?" Joe asked cautiously, knowing he was treading on thin ice.

Fenton closed his eyes, attempting to keep his emotions under control through sheer willpower. 'Damn it, Frank! You were told that in confidence!' Fenton thought angrily, however the anger quickly gave way to guilt. 'Stop blaming him. He's been a better father to Joe than you have recently. He brought Joe back. He kept this family together when you were falling apart.'

Opening his eyes, Fenton saw Joe staring back at him intently. 'Why didn't you tell him? It's a valid question. Why didn't you tell him everything right from the start? If you love him so much why did you stand by and let him think he was losing his mind when you could have prevented it.'

"Never mind," Joe mumbled, assuming he'd gone too far. "Forget I said anything. Let's go."

Hopping off the bed, he started to reach for his overnight bag when he felt his father's arms encircle him, gently pulling him close. Joe could hear his father crying and as Fenton's arms tightened around him, Joe felt a flashback coming on fast. However, the unadulterated terror that seemed to accompany every single one of them was missing. Something was drastically different. Instead of the fear and pain that he normally suffered through, Joe felt…safe. Safe and protected. Exactly the same way he felt the day his father rescued him from Tilghman. The day Fenton had scooped Joe up into his arms and held his son as if he would never, ever let go.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I'm so, so sorry. You deserve so much better than what I've given you. I've handled all of this so badly. Thank God, your brother is a better father than I am."

Joe stood together with his father, enveloped in that feeling of safety, and didn't want to let go. Several minutes later, Fenton stepped back and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. Joe waited until his father looked him in the eye.

"You're wrong, Dad. Frank is the best brother in the world. Lord knows I don't deserve him. But I've only got one father - and I wouldn't trade him for anything on earth."

"Thank you," Fenton whispered. It was only a few weeks earlier that Fenton had feared Joe wouldn't be able to forgive him for thinking Joe was capable of murder. When Joe did give him a second chance, Fenton had vowed never to do anything that could put their relationship in danger again, yet it didn't take long for him to break that vow. 'No more vows. No more promises I can't keep. Just the truth this time.'

"I will do my best to never, ever let you down again, Joe," Fenton said solemnly.

"I know, Dad." Joe smiled at his father for the first time in weeks. "I think I'm ready to go home now."

Fenton put an arm around Joe's shoulders and father and son exited the hospital together.

oooOOOooo

Joe sat in the courtroom watching and listening as Andrew Worth began questioning Con Riley about the ballistics report he had ordered. As hard as he tried to pay attention, Joe's emotions were wreaking havoc inside him. He felt he couldn't concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. This was the final day of his trial. It had resumed the day after he had been released from the hospital. Andrew had spent the past few days presenting character witnesses for Joe. As soon as Andrew was done questioning Con, he would ask that Chris Taylor's journal, as well as numerous other items that had been found in the storage unit, officially be entered as evidence. After that, would come the closing arguments.

'And then my entire future is in the hands of twelve complete strangers,' Joe thought fearfully.

He didn't realize how much he had been dreading this moment until now. He had tried to keep his spirits up since he had been released from the hospital, not wanting to burden his family with his fears and worries. But when he awoke this morning, he realized that although he was starting the day in his own bed, in his own home, with Vanessa by his side, he could conceivably end it all alone, on a hard cot, in a cold, cramped jail cell.

Andrew had told Joe he expected the jury to begin deliberations by late morning and felt certain they would reach a verdict quickly. With the new evidence Frank had uncovered, Andrew, and everyone else, felt the jury would be able to reach a unanimous not guilty verdict in short order. Everyone but Joe. The nightmares had come back with a vengeance last night and they continued to haunt him even now. Trying to push the terrifying images to the back of his mind, Joe focused on Con Riley who had just been sworn in on the witness stand.

"Detective Riley, can you tell the court exactly what the ballistics report revealed?" Andrew asked.

"According to the report, there was extensive gunpowder residue on Chris Taylor's hands."

"Could Mr. Taylor have gotten gunpowder residue on his hands if he had not been holding onto the gun when it was fired?"

"No."

"My client has stated that Mr. Taylor grabbed his hands, as he was holding the gun, and that Mr. Taylor discharged the weapon himself, essentially committing suicide. Did the gunpowder residue leave any noticeable pattern on his hands indicating whether he might have been trying to push the gun away, or pull it towards him?"

"Yes. The pattern on his hands would strongly indicate Mr. Taylor was trying to pull the gun towards himself, rather than push it away, when it was discharged."

Andrew turned towards the jury box, making eye contact with every single juror as he spoke.

"Given the findings in the ballistics report you ordered, do you believe Chris Taylor killed himself?"

"Yes, I do."

There were several low murmurs in the courtroom as Judge O'Donnell asked for order.

"No further questions your honor," Andrew said, returning to his seat.

After Dennis Seevers asked Con a few perfunctory questions during cross-examination, Andrew presented the journal and other items that had been uncovered in the storage unit. Closing arguments and Judge O'Donnell's instructions to the jury quickly followed and before Joe knew it, his fate was in their hands. As they filed out of the courtroom to begin their deliberations, Joe prayed.

oooOOOooo

Andrew had suggested the Hardys stay together, in one place, as he had a strong feeling the jury would reach a verdict before the day was out. Heeding his advice, Joe and his family gathered at his parent's house to wait. They had been home less than two hours and just finished eating lunch when Joe's cell phone rang. Conversation ceased as everyone watched Joe pull out his phone and check the caller ID. Frank saw fear flicker in his brother's eyes. Frank noticed Joe hesitated before answering and saw his hand shaking ever so slightly as Joe brought the phone to his ear.

"Hello?" Joe answered. He listened and then paled.

"What? Already?" Joe swallowed hard. When he spoke again his voice was quiet and shaky. "Okay. We'll be right there. Bye."

Joe slowly returned the phone to his pocket. Staring at the table, he reached for Vanessa's hand, squeezing it tightly. Wordlessly, Vanessa reached out and pulled Joe to her. Joe rested his head on her shoulder, hiding his face in her hair. He didn't need to say a word. Everyone knew the caller was Andrew. The jury had reached a verdict.

"We better go," Fenton said quietly.

They all stood to leave except Joe and Vanessa. Frank started to say something to Joe when his father stopped him.

"Give them a few minutes," Fenton said, motioning towards the door.

With a backward glance at his brother, Frank followed his parents and Callie out the door.

Vanessa and Joe held each other tightly, neither one saying a word. Hard as he tried, Joe couldn't stop the "what if's" that had been hovering just below the surface all morning.

'What if the ballistics report and the journal and all the character witnesses weren't enough? What if they still have doubts about me? What if they really think I'm guilty?'

"I'm scared, Van," Joe finally whispered. "Really scared."

Vanessa held him tighter, understanding he needed her to be the strong one.

"I know, Baby," she said softly.

Joe pulled away just enough to look in her eyes, refusing to let her go completely. Vanessa felt her heart skip a beat. Fear, anxiety and desperation were the only things she saw reflected in his blue eyes.

"What if they've decided I'm…"

Vanessa put a finger to his lips.

"They didn't," she said with quiet confidence. "You're innocent. I know they believe that as much as I do. When we leave that courtroom today, we'll be going home together."

oooOOOooo

"Have you reached a verdict?" Judge O'Donnell addressed the foreman of the jury.

"We have, Your Honor," the middle-aged man replied.

"Would the defendant please rise," O'Donnell said, looking at Joe.

Joe stood, hoping his legs would support him. Would he really be leaving the courtroom with Vanessa? Or would he be handcuffed and transported to the state penitentiary, where he was certain he would be dead before the sun came up in the morning.

Suddenly everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The bailiff handed the judge a piece of paper he'd retrieved from the foreman. Judge O'Donnell read the verdict, his face remaining neutral, giving Joe no idea of what his fate would be. Folding the paper, O'Donnell returned it to the bailiff, who in turn gave it back to the foreman. The foreman stood and unfolded the piece of paper. Joe held his breath and said a final prayer as the man began to speak.

"On the charge of murder in the second degree, we the jury, find the defendant, Joseph Paul Hardy, not guilty."

Joe felt his knees buckle and was absolutely certain the only reason he didn't collapse was because Andrew had, at some point, taken hold of his arm. He closed his eyes and leaned against the table becoming aware of the rising voices around him. Apparently, everybody had an opinion on the verdict and wanted to express it. Judge O'Donnell banged his gavel and gradually the voices died out.

"Mr. Hardy," Judge O'Donnell said.

Joe looked at the judge and, for the very first time, he saw O'Donnell smile.

"You are free to go."

As the judge left the courtroom chaos reigned. Joe turned towards Andrew wondering how he could ever begin to thank him when he was suddenly knocked backwards against the table. Arms encircled his neck and he inhaled the familiar scent he loved so much. He wrapped his arms around Vanessa's waist and held her tightly, never wanting to let go.

Frank had quickly followed Vanessa when she ran to the front of the courtroom and threw herself on Joe. Callie, Laura, Fenton and all Frank and Joe's friends were not far behind. Frank now stood clutching Callie's hand, watching his younger brother and his fiancé who were completely oblivious to the crowd of people around them. He smiled and finally relaxed for the first time in almost two months. Joe and Vanessa obviously still had a very long road ahead of them in terms of mentally recovering from this whole ordeal. That road wouldn't always be smooth but now they had something they weren't sure of just five short minutes ago…a future together.

As Frank waited patiently to congratulate his brother, he noticed an elderly couple that hadn't missed a day of the trial. They were walking slowly, allowing Frank to eavesdrop on their conversation.

"What a waste of taxpayer's money," the woman said, shaking her head. Looking up, she noticed Frank watching her. To his utter surprise, she winked at him, and continued speaking. "Of course he's not guilty. He's a Hardy. Everyone knows a Hardy could never commit murder!"

oooOOOooo

Several hours later, Joe stood in the living room of his parents' home, feeling incredibly lucky. Laura and Fenton's home had become the site of an impromptu celebration that included friends, family and acquaintances that had helped in Joe's defense. Watching as Phil Cohen made his way through the crowd of people and out into the hall, Joe quickly followed him.

"Phil, can I talk to you for a minute?" Joe asked.

"Sure," Phil smiled.

"I wanted to thank you for everything you did for me. I'll never be able to repay you."

"Joe, I'm not looking for any kind of repayment. You're a friend. A very good friend who was in trouble. You've done the same for me in the past and I know if I ever need you in the future, all I have to do is call."

"Thanks. And for offering Vanessa that job. She's so excited she's bouncing off the walls." Joe smiled. "I was really starting to worry about how the stress of looking for a new job was going to affect her. We both owe you a lot. And most of all I owe you an apology. If you hadn't been there to help Frank, I'd probably be in prison right now. And I gave you nothing but grief. I'm sorry, Phil."

"Extenuating circumstances. Don't give it a second thought," Phil said breezily.

"Thanks, Phil," Joe replied gratefully then turned and walked back to the living room.

Standing in the doorway, Joe watched his older brother who was standing across the room speaking to Con Riley and a few other officers from the Bayport police department. A moment later, sensing he was being watched, Frank slowly scanned the room until his eyes rested on Joe.

'Thanks,' Joe mouthed to Frank.

Frank smiled at his younger brother and held up his right index finger. Returning the smile, Joe held up his finger.

'Blood brothers,' he thought, feeling truly blessed. 'Forever.'

THE END

--

THANK YOU to Cheryl, Phx, TraSan, Helen, Alicia, Lina, Polaris '05, Calathiel, Twisp, josie, MissMe113, Miss Fenway, pally, Shinigamixgirl (and if I missed anyone, I apologize!!), for your wonderful, supportive comments throughout this story! :-) I know it's a lot easier not to review, sadly I'm guilty of it myself at times, so the fact that you took the time to let me know what you thought, was appreciated more than you know. Ditto to those who reviewed anonymously – I appreciated hearing what you thought! And I hope everyone who read the story got some enjoyment out of it. Thanks for allowing me to share my version of the Hardys world with you.

Next up… Trust. ;-)