And so we come to the end. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who took a moment to review during this story! I appreciated every, single comment! :-) You guys are AWESOME! Hope you enjoy the final chapter.
Two days later Fenton and Laura Hardy sat on a bench in the gazebo of the immaculately tended and sculptured gardens. Frank had suggested the Hardy family return to the safe house during the first few days after Joe's release from the hospital. With so many video games, DVD's, CD's, computer games and the massive TV and mini-movie theater to keep him occupied with a minimum of movement, they wouldn't have to worry about Joe insisting he was fine and trying to overdo it. Fenton had approved of the idea and immediately made all the arrangements. Recalling the look on Joe's face when they pulled up to the gates, he decided it was well worth the favors he called in to make it happen.
"This was a wonderful idea. Thank you for making it happen," Laura said, looking out over the gardens.
"It was all Frank's idea. I just pulled the right strings, that's all." Taking his wife's hand, Fenton turned slightly to face her. "Laura, I know everything turned out all right and Joe will be fine but I…I need to apologize. You haven't brought it up once and you have no idea how much I appreciate that. But it doesn't change the fact that I was wrong. I should have listened to you. Looking back, I don't know what I was thinking. Joe could have…he might have…" He stopped, choking on the word.
Laura turned to look at her husband and smiled sadly. "You're right. You should have listened to me. You and Frank both. But then again, I knew I was right and I should have stood my ground. I should have absolutely insisted Joe be brought to a hospital immediately. I shouldn't have taken no for an answer."
Reaching out she cupped a hand to her husband's cheek seeing the guilt in his eyes that she knew would linger for a very long time.
"Fenton, you are a wonderful father. We have two incredible children to prove that. I know how proud you are to be working with them side by side. But you have to remember they are your sons first and your partners second. There are times you need to react a little more like a father and a little less like the world's best private investigator. This was one of those times."
"Thank you," Fenton said with quiet relief, lifting her hand to his lips and kissing it gently.
"You're welcome." She kissed him on the cheek. "But don't ever cross me again where the welfare of one of my children is concerned. You'll lose."
"And I wouldn't have it any other way."
Laura rested her head on his shoulder and they gazed out at the sun setting over the gardens in quiet contentment.
"YES!! I win again!" Joe shouted, pumping a fist in the air triumphantly and immediately regretting it. "Oww…" he moaned pitifully, clutching at his side.
"Serves you right for being so modest," Frank laughed at his brother.
Joe was seated in a cushy, leather recliner with a tray table to one side laden with drinks and snacks that were replenished without fail by Laura and Vanessa. Several game cartridges and controls were perilously close to the edge of the table and a few had spilled over into his lap. For the past few hours, he had systematically beaten Frank at almost every game they'd played, although a few times Joe had suspected that Frank let him win.
Recalling the strange dream he'd had while napping earlier in the day, Joe was determined to find out if he was actually remembering something or if it was indeed just a dream; the same dream he'd remembered while talking with Vanessa in the hospital, only this time the voice in the dream sounded suspiciously like Frank.
"Can I ask you something?" Joe asked as nonchalantly as possible.
"When I was in the emergency room, did you come in and sit with me at all?" Joe watched his brother carefully and thought he detected just the tiniest hint of a smile.
"Your doctor forbid anyone from seeing you," Frank replied.
"That's not what I asked." Joe narrowed his eyes, wincing slightly when his bruised right eye protested.
"I know." Frank smiled that infuriating smile Joe hated. The smile he used when he wanted to say 'I'm-not-telling-you-everything-and-I-don't-intend-to-so-don't ask.'
"Well…" Joe pressed him, wanting a straight answer.
"Well what? You're the rule breaker in the family, not me. I like rules, remember?" Frank's smile growing even bigger at Joe's obvious frustration with him.
"You're not gonna tell me, are you? You're going to let me wonder about it for the rest of my life. Let me worry if you were really there or if I'm slowly losing my mind," Joe said dramatically, making a last ditch sympathy effort that fell on deaf ears.
"You lost your mind a long time ago. And I just told you all you're going to get from me." Frank stared at the television screen trying hard not to laugh.
"Fine," Joe huffed. "But I know what I heard," he muttered under his breath, causing Frank's unruffled demeanor to crack as he laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" Laura asked coming into the room to check on Joe.
"Frank's messing with my head," Joe complained to his mother. "I think he needs a time out."
"Well, if I send him to his room he'll have to drive all the way back to Bayport to get there. Somehow, I think the punishment will have lost its "oomph" by then. Why don't you two just call a truce instead," Laura suggested, ruffling Joe's hair, the only person he allowed to get away with it. She laughed as Joe rolled his eyes in reply. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Frank, can you help your brother out of that chair so he can wash up and get to the table before the food gets cold."
"Sure, Mom." Frank stood up. "We'll be there in a few minutes."
"I know you were there," Joe mumbled as Frank helped him carefully get out of the chair and into a standing position.
"Sure I was," Frank humored him, staying close to his brother in case Joe needed any help.
"You can't fool me."
"Of course not."
Standing in the hall out of sight, Fenton and Laura watched their sons banter back and forth, as Frank helped Joe negotiate the stairs up to the bathroom, grateful their family was happy and relatively healthy once again.
Later that evening, Frank watched as Laura came into the viewing room carrying yet another snack for Joe and placed it on the table next to him. Seated on the other side of the chair in extremely close proximity was Vanessa. She alternately rubbed Joe's back affectionately or ran her fingers through his hair, periodically whispering in his ear and bestowing him with a seemingly endless supply of kisses. As Laura picked up Joe's glass and started back towards the kitchen to refill it, Frank nudged his father jerking his head towards Joe.
"They're waiting on him hand and foot. As if he isn't spoiled enough all ready," he commented wryly. Walking behind the couch, Laura gave him a light smack on the back of the head.
"And who's the biggest offender of all where that's concerned?" she said reminding Frank that he was notorious for giving in to Joe's every whim.
Once she returned with fresh drinks and snacks for all, Laura sat down next to her husband as Callie picked up what had been the main topic of conversation at dinner.
"I still can't believe you haven't picked a date for the wedding yet." She looked at Vanessa in disbelief.
"I've picked several dates. I'm just waiting for him to get back to me," Vanessa replied eyeing Joe.
"I don't know. It's been so long now I figured we could just be terminally engaged," Joe teased her.
"Forget it, pal." Vanessa waved her diamond ring in front of his face. "You're mine now and I intend to make it legal no matter how long it takes! Besides, you promised me a honeymoon on a deserted tropical island, remember?"
"And I intend to keep it." Joe pulled her towards him and sealed it with a kiss.
"Well, I hate to break it to you, little brother, but before you can go on a honeymoon, you have to get married. And before you can get married you have to pick a date," Frank said.
"Oh, all right." Joe pretended to sigh heavily. "What are those dates again?" He listened as Vanessa rattled off a string of dates she had chosen and committed to memory. Joe leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment, as if deep in thought.
"September 24th," he finally announced, opening his eyes and looking around. "See, all this wedding planning stuff isn't nearly as complicated as you people make it out to be."
As the laughter died down, Frank glanced at the television screen and saw the news was just beginning. He pointed excitedly at the screen, which displayed a large photograph of Johann Jarrell. "Dad, turn it up!"
Silence descended as everyone gave their undivided attention to the lead story of the night. As the news anchor recapped the trial of the largest terrorist ring ever uncovered on U.S. soil, he announced that after adding up the sentences from every charge that had been lodged against them, all those convicted would be serving anywhere from fifty to one hundred years in prison with no chance of parole.
"Thanks to the undercover work and flawless testimony of Bayport's own Frank and Joe Hardy, this reign of terror is over," the announcer finished with a broad smile.
With a smile of his own, Joe looked at his older brother and winked. "The Dynamic Duo strikes again!"