A/N: Hi there! First off, I am so sorry for the delay in getting this posted. I had it almost all ready to go and the flash drive I was using bit the dust. (Actually I accidentally bumped into it when it was sticking out of the computer and broke it. ARGH!) This was originally written about five years ago and I am trying to 'clean it up' a bit for posting here as I hope I've grown and improved as a writer in the intervening years! So I had to start from scratch with the 'cleaning up' part… hence the delay. Anyway…
This is a sequel to Vanished. I suppose it's not imperative that you read that story first but if you haven't read it, some things in this story may not make a whole lot of sense.
Disclaimer: I don't own them. If I did I certainly wouldn't be working for a living.
Twenty-three-year old Vanessa Bender attempted to stretch her long legs in the cramped space and succeeded only in hitting her shins on the seat in front of her. She glanced around the cabin of the aircraft growing more restless the closer they got to Chicago. Tucking a strand of ash-blonde hair behind her ear, she glanced down at her left hand, which was intertwined with the right hand of her twenty-four-year old fiancé. Handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed Joe Hardy was staring out the window of the plane, lost in thought oblivious to the fact that Vanessa was watching him.
Thinking about the reason for their trip to Chicago, she wondered if Joe was really ready for it. Not that he had a choice. Six months earlier, on a previous trip to Chicago, he had accidentally stumbled onto a plot to assassinate the most powerful man in the Senate and very possibly, the President. That knowledge had led to his being kidnapped and tortured almost to death. Joe was now coming back to Chicago as the star witness in the trial against one of his assailants; a trial that had already started to take its toll on Joe, even before it had begun.
Shortly after they'd learned the exact date of the trial, the nightmares began. Infrequent at first, Vanessa hoped they'd stay that way but it was not to be. Getting progressively worse, it was now at the point where she knew Joe would awaken at least once or twice during the night in a cold sweat. Sometimes she could calm him down enough that he could fall asleep again, but more often than not Joe would simply lay awake for the rest of the night, too scared to close his eyes and have to relive the torture endlessly until he awoke in the morning.
Vanessa had also noticed Joe spending a lot more time alone, running along the beach, riding his motorcycle or simply sitting on the balcony of their apartment staring out into space. If she asked, Joe would assure her he was fine and simply needed the solitude to prepare himself for the trial. However, as he became quieter, subdued and withdrawn, Vanessa began to worry. When the smiles, jokes and wisecracks began to decrease at an alarming pace, she feared Joe was sinking into a severe depression. Knowing how dark his world had become when that happened earlier in the year, she called Joe's older brother, Frank.
Vanessa had no doubt Joe trusted her completely with his deepest feelings, but she had learned over the years there were some things he wouldn't discuss with anyone but Frank. Rather than feel hurt or slighted, Vanessa was just happy there was one person in whom Joe felt he could confide his darkest fears, even if he couldn't always bring himself to ask for that help when he needed it.
Watching Joe gaze out at the passing clouds, Vanessa was glad she had made that call to Frank, asking him to talk to Joe and try to draw him out. She knew if Joe wouldn't even talk to Frank about what he was going through, things were really as dark as she thought. While Joe was obviously still concerned about the upcoming trial and the effect it would have not only on him but his entire family, Vanessa did notice a change for the better. She also noticed Joe began to call Frank himself when he thought his imagination and emotions were starting to get the best of him.
Glancing across the aisle, Vanessa smiled at dark-haired Frank Hardy. With a slight nod, he returned the smile almost as if he could read her mind. Still, even with Frank's support and advice, Joe just wasn't himself and Vanessa knew he wouldn't be until the trial was over and Keith Rashman was permanently behind bars.
Loosely holding Joe's hand in hers, Vanessa recalled the argument they'd had just a few nights earlier. In the six years they had been together, it was the only real fight the two of them had ever had. Joe had had a bad day, after having gotten very little sleep the night before thanks to a seemingly endless cycle of nightmares. He had been short-tempered and snapping at her all day finally forbidding her to attend the trial, saying he did not wanting her subjected to the horrifying details of the abuse he had suffered. Vanessa, who could be just as stubborn as Joe at times and hadn't gotten much sleep herself having been awake worrying about Joe most of the night, had been adamant that she was going to be right by his side through it all, whether he liked it or not. The argument had escalated quickly. It culminated and then came to an abrupt halt when they had simultaneously yelled at each other, "You're so stubborn!"
Vanessa smiled as she remembered how they laughed so hard they cried and the fight had been quickly forgotten. She suddenly felt her cheeks flush as she also remembered how they spent the rest of the night making up. Feeling Joe's eyes on her, she looked up and blushed even more when he squeezed her hand and winked at her, as if he knew exactly what she were thinking. Resting her head on his shoulder, they sat in silence for the remainder of the flight.
Checking the overhead bins one final time, Frank turned to look at his wife Callie, Vanessa and Joe standing in the aisle behind them. While it wouldn't be obvious to anyone else, Frank could see the change in Joe's demeanor since the plane landed. While waiting for the passengers ahead of them to slowly file out of the aircraft, Joe's eyes darted around nervously, scanning the faces of everyone in his line of sight almost as if he were looking for someone. Despite the fact that Keith Rashman was still securely locked away in jail, it was apparent that Joe did not feel entirely safe in this city, a chilling testimony to how much the brutal incident still haunted him.
The line of people finally started to move and Frank slowly led the way off the plane onto the jet bridge. As the Hardys entered the terminal, Frank looked around and quickly got his bearings, frowning in disgust. As luck would have it, in order to reach the baggage claim area they would have to walk right past the restroom Joe had been abducted from. He looked at his father, an older version of himself, who had obviously come to the same conclusion judging by the matching frown he wore. Instinctively, Frank and Fenton both glanced at Joe. By the look in his eyes, he too understood where the path to baggage claim would take them.
As Frank watched, puzzled, Fenton leaned down to his wife Laura, a slender petite woman with blonde hair and blue eyes who didn't look old enough to have two sons in their early twenties. He whispered something in her ear and she nodded her understanding. Silently getting Vanessa's attention, Laura motioned the younger girl to join her. Not sure what was going on but seeing that Joe was extremely agitated all ready, Vanessa obliged, moving to stand next to Laura. Immediately Fenton took her spot by Joe's side.
As understanding dawned on him, Frank dropped Callie's hand and gestured towards Vanessa as he moved to flank Joe on the other side. With a nod of agreement, slender, blonde haired Callie fell in step next to Vanessa as the small group began their trek through the terminal.
Frank and Fenton took the lead with Joe between them staying just close enough to subconsciously let him know he was well protected and not alone, no matter what his overactive imagination was telling him. Right behind them, Callie, Vanessa and Laura followed closely.
As they approached the restroom, Frank could sense the apprehension his brother was feeling coming through loud and clear. Throwing a furtive glance to his right, Frank saw Joe desperately trying to keep his eyes glued to the people in front of him, fighting a losing battle not to look at the place where his nightmare in hell had begun. Casually placing a hand on Joe's shoulder, Frank felt the tension there.
Almost as if a switch had been flipped, Joe's barely concealed anguish ignited the burning hatred and intense need for revenge Frank had been able to keep buried for months. Immediately he knew the bitterness had only festered and the revulsion he had for Rashman had grown immeasurably. They hadn't even made it out of the airport yet and already Frank could feel a white-hot anger raging inside him, directed squarely at the man who had nearly killed his brother. He sighed inwardly, giving Joe's shoulder a gentle squeeze, and finally acknowledged their stay in Chicago was going to be more trying than he had ever anticipated.
Picking up the pace a little, Fenton and Frank hurried Joe and the others past the restroom. As the image of Keith Rashman's face flashed through his mind, Frank could swear he felt his blood pressure rise and prayed to a higher power to give him the inner strength he would need to get both himself and his brother through the days ahead.