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give me a world, you have taken the world I was

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??:??, ?

I wake up in darkness. Ah. Great. Time to play the time-honored game “what are the odds”, better known as “so how screwed to hell am I this time?”

Getting to be kind of a habit with me lately. There was that time with the kidnappers, the time I made like a human shield, my run in with the Great Robber Thief of 2009 (it’s probably better not to ask, to be honest). It’s like Frank left and I forgot where the brakes where, forgot how to slow down and be cautious. He was always better at that than me.

I am so kicking his ass for this when he gets back for Christmas break. Shit, is he already back? What day is it? He is going to be so pissed at me.

Still, none of that really explain why it feels like I can feel every muscle in my body spasming in protest against the painful tightness of my newest set of ropes. I test them, but there’s no give at all. The skin around my wrists is already raw and I can feel something warm trickling down my palm. Blood. I can taste it in my mouth as well, salty and metallic all at once. Maybe I should start collecting bloodied ropes. Everyone needs a hobby, right?

Oh wait. I forgot. My hobby’s getting into situations that end up with me in the dark, tied up and drugged. Somehow I always forget that.

“He’s awake,” someone says, and the next minute there’s a bright light in my eyes.

“What…?” I slur. The less alert they think I am, the better.

“Put him back out,” another voice says, impatient. “We’re not there yet.”

I kick out instinctively at that, trying to back away from whoever’s looming over me, but there are hands on my shoulders holding me down and then a sharp prick in my neck. Within thirty seconds I can feel everything start to blur again. Whatever they got me with, it’s good. They’ve got money. Nothing about this feels right. I wasn’t… The case wasn’t…

+

18:47, December 13

“Can you make sure to get to bed at a decent time tonight, Joe?” mom asks, and I grin.

“But I always get to bed on time!” I protest, and she shakes her head. If she were anyone but mom, she would have rolled her eyes.

“I’m serious, Joe. I know this case is important to you, but I want you well rested so you’re not a bear tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry, mom,” I say. “I’m not likely to forget Frank’s coming home tomorrow. I’ll be home by ten thirty, nothing’s ever happened past then anyways.”

“Surveillance again?” dad says, coming in the door, and I shrug.

“It’s that case I told you about, the guys I think are doing some small time drug dealing. I just have to get some actual evidence of it.”

“Be careful,” he instructs me, and I nod and head out with a kiss on the cheek for mom. Since Frank left – well, I’m 18 and I’ve got my official P.I. license. Dad hasn’t tried to stop me, exactly. He’s just made it very clear he’d like me to stop of my own free will, or not do anything without backup. But I can’t wait around for Frank to get back home to work on a case, or for dad to have some free time.

So maybe I’ve been a little bit reckless on my own. But I haven’t done anything downright stupid, and technically none of the situations I’ve gotten in these past four months have been my fault. Not entirely, at least.

The point is, stop me from being a detective? Over my dead body, guys.

And I kind of want to get a break in this case so I can show it off to Frank. I know. Dumb, right? But I guess some habits you just never break.

+

??:??, ?

I come to the second time in a bright room. Too bright – my eyes hurt every time I try to open them, so I keep them closed for the moment and try to figure out what my situation is.

I’m sitting in a chair, my arms still tied behind me. A quick tugging determines that they’ve been secured to the chair as well, and pretty firmly. My legs likewise, and for whatever weird reason my shoes have been taken. Right, because not having shoes is totally going to stop me from walking. I’m going to look at a rough floor and go, oh, well, I guess I can’t escape, I can’t walk over that without shoes. My face sort of aches, too. My nose got smashed in the original struggle, as short as it had been, and they must have moved me recently and jarred it because I can feel a trickle of fresh blood coming down from it. Who are these people? I’m working on a grand total of one case, and it’s definitely way small fry. These people aren’t, in every way that matters.

“Nice of you to join us, Joseph,” someone says from nearby.

I’m still wondering who Joseph is when I feel that unmistakable pin prick that means I’m getting drugged again.

“Not again,” I say, and someone laughs. It’s almost too bright, like the lights on me.

“It’s not a sedative this time.” A sound, like someone’s tapping their fingernails on a metal table. It’s irritating already. “This one’s a stimulant of kinds. The goal is to loosen you up a little bit. Make you less inhibited.”

“Did you seriously call me Joseph?” I ask, managing to squint into the glare enough to see a rough outline somewhere to the side. It’s an important question. No one has called me Joseph since I was seven. Not even mom when she’s ticked. I think she’s forgotten Joe’s not my full name.

“It is your Christian name.” It’s a smooth voice, pristine and precise. I don’t recognize it at all.

“Technically. Right, so, usual spiel. You can’t keep me here, this is completely illegal, people will come looking, I don’t think you understand - ” The slap is enough to shock me into temporary silence at least. So that’s one guy still to my side, at least. Possibly two, if I’m judging the sound of footsteps right. Three people for one tied-up prisoner? That’s kind of crappy odds, and shows a worrying sense of caution on their part. Or fear, but given that I’m the person in the room drugged, tied up, and with a broken nose, I’m going with just caution. Why can’t they be like normal bad guys and leave me alone in a room with Frank and something conveniently sharp?

Also, ow.

“Why do you think you’re here, Joseph?” I struggle to concentrate on the voice through the ringing in my ears.

“No idea,” I say, totally honest. “I’m not working on anything big. Definitely not big enough for kidnapping.”

“Not at the moment, no,” he says, thoughtful. “Think back a month or so. The shipyard, box one twenty three.”

My heart sinks in my chest.

Well, fuck.

It’s not that this wasn’t already bad. It’s that it just somehow got way, way worse.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” I lie.

“I thought you might say that.” A gentle cough. “Mark? Please do me the kindness of breaking him.”

I can feel somebody moving behind me. I’m not trained for this sort of situation. I’m used to kidnappings and stuff like that, but this is a genuine interrogation, and I have no illusions about the people I’m dealing with here. There’s no way I’ll be able to keep lying long, and once they find out I have zero control over the package and it’s all gone on to the proper authorities they’ll kill me after extracting anything I know about it. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

I just have to hold out. Hold out until someone finds me. I can do that.

How did they even find out it was me? We kept that wrapped up so tight you practically had to be dead to know.

Mark shatters the middle bone in my right index finger.

I broke my arm when I was nine, my collar bone at eleven, three fingers at fourteen, and a couple of ribs, my wrist, and my collarbone again (all at different times) at seventeen. You’d think I’d be used to broken bones by now.

Spoiler: it still hurts.

+

22:09, November 18

So yeah, sometimes when Frank’s not around I make dumb decisions.

Like getting involved in a case that I knew was probably going to come around to bite me in the ass, because hey, that’s what the Hardy’s do, right? They get involved in cases with players way, way above their levels. Like the mafia.

Still, it was actually going fine. I’d even managed to track down their latest shipment, which let me tell you, that was some of the finest piece of detective-ing I have ever done, no shit. It was brilliant. Box one twenty three. Technically it didn’t exist.

And okay, so checking it out without going through official channels was probably a little bit illegal, but I wanted to have some sort of verification before I dragged the police here. I’d set the cameras watching it on a carefully patched loop, just for an hour while I poked around a bit. I was taking precautions! This was new and exciting territory for me.

On the things I was totally expecting list: that the toys in the box were all packed with drugs, and a couple of the boxes have some pretty high powered weapons under the toys.

On the things I wasn’t expecting at all list: okay yeah a briefcase full of incriminating evidence against the mafia with a note saying ‘please deliver only to the chief of police’ and a list of names headed by the title “Dirty Cops” was pretty unexpected. Sorry people, I’m not a seer.

Someone looking to take down the mafia from the inside would definitely explain the anonymous tips I’d received starting me on this case, though. I’d been guessing it was just someone who’d seen something on accident and didn’t want the mafia to know they’d said anything.

I didn’t need the p.s. on the note to know that no one but the Chief and my dad could know about my involvement with this. I’m reckless. I’m not an idiot.

Yes, there is a difference.

+

03:34, December 15

They don’t do much more for now, just ask questions again and again, Mark poking and prodding at the mess he’d made of my finger. To be honest I’m kind of surprised they aren’t going for more, but I guess they know their business. They want to know how I found the crate, what paperwork trail I followed. It seems kind of banal to me – I mean, come on, what paper trial they left behind? Can’t they just… check it themselves? But whatever. It still hurts, and I still lie about it on principle.

I catch a glimpse of Mark’s watch sometime during it, when he moves out from behind me for a bit. It’s a big, clunky affair, a total fake, but the sort that almost looks real. Vain, paid decently but not really well. Backed up by his shoes, nice but not quite nice enough, overly polished. It’s funny the sort of things you notice when you’re running on adrenaline and it doesn’t matter. The date’s the fifteenth. It’s three in the morning. I’ve been missing a full day now. Frank’s home from college.

I have screwed everything up in the worst possible way. I don’t even know why that surprises me anymore. Isn’t that my most prominent talent these days?

They leave me alone after a while. Switch the light off and leave the room entirely. I guess they got tired of me telling them to go fuck themselves. Hey, maybe they actually went to do just that.

I can lie to myself if I want, okay.

Time passes. I doze fitfully, loud bangs and other noises jerking me awake from dreams to the same empty black room, unable to see through anything.

I don’t know what they want. The questions about the paperwork aren’t the right ones, they’re like – warm up or something. (He broke my finger for warm up. Slightly disturbing.) Wear down my resistance with the questions that don’t matter, then whammy me with the ones that do when I’m too tired and in too much pain to even think about lying. If I could just figure out what those real questions would be, I could come up with lies ahead of time, keep thinking them until I believed they were real.

What do they want? They know I don’t have the package. They must know I barely even looked at it, that it was in my possession for hardly thirty minutes.

I wake up about the fifth time and understand.

My secret informant. The person who went to all that trouble to compile that briefcase and direct me to it.

I’m the only person who’s had any contact with the informant. Even the Chief just knows that they exist. That’s what these people want. Their traitor.

The light switches back on even as I’m struggling to figure out a lie to tell them. Something they’ll want to hear, something realistic. Something to mask the truth that I have no goddamn idea who it was, because they’re never going to believe that and even if they did all it would mean was me, really dead.

This may be the worst Christmas present I have given Frank in my entire life.

I don’t know how much time has passed. It’s still the fifteenth, I’m pretty sure. They were going for sleep deprivation, so none of my little naps would have lasted long. Ten minutes? Fifteen, maybe? Even taking into account all the time spent staring into the dark that’s only a couple of hours, maybe three. It may not even be noon yet. Does drugged sleep count as sleep? I should check that out when I get home.

“Where did we leave off?” that voice asks. It’s almost concerned. When did he come back?

“I believe I had varied things up by telling you to go fuck a snake,” I say as brightly as I can. “Preferably a rattle – hnnnnnnngg, god.” I nearly dislocate my shoulder trying to wrench away from the pain. That’s the second finger. I can feel tears starting to run down my face. I’m not sure why. It seems like they would be too light to even register compared to the white hot shards of pain radiating up my arm.

“Your insolence is wearying.”

“Mark, you really need to learn a gentle touch,” I gasp out. Fuck them. I’m not going to give the bastards a goddamn thing. His only response is to wrench the newly broken finger backwards, bending. The broken bits scrape, and the unbroken bone at the base is protesting at the strain.

Please please please. I want Frank. I want to go home.

“Tell us how you found the crate,” the voice in the darkness says. “Who told you how to find it?”

Cutting to the chase. Normally I respect that in a person.

“Hey, how about you jump off a cliff,” I suggest. Nicely, too. The base bone snaps.

I almost don’t hear the question repeated over my scream of pain.

+

??:??, December 15

Time must pass.

I lie, wildly. It was a courier snake. A girl with legs like Charlize Theron’s and hair the color of strained peaches. A guy whose description sounds suspiciously like Snape, so sue me. They stop hurting me for at least half an hour to listen to that one and then confer with other people, no doubt seeing whether it makes any sense.

It was a hawk. Wait, did I say it was a hawk? I totally meant it was a stage magician at my school, a guy named Zatara. One of them must be a comics fan, they disprove that one in like five minutes. Asshole. It was a middle aged lady. I describe her in detail, after someone I saw on the street yesterday. That one takes longest, maybe an hour as they consider it. An hour to myself, trying to regroup, to prepare myself for when they inevitably come back.

I’ve heard war stories. I know everyone breaks.

I know I’m very close, which is probably why I’ve faked it so well three times now. I haven’t bought much time at all, in the end. Gave Frank and dad and the police maybe ten extra hours to find me, at a generous estimate, probably more like seven or eight. It won’t be enough. I’m overly optimistic sometime, but linking my abduction to a case a month earlier that almost no one knows I was even involved in, and then tracking them down to wherever I’m being held? It’s at least a few days’ work, if everything goes perfectly. I have four shattered fingers, more bruises and paper thin knife cuts than I can count, and I’m missing a tooth and four fingernails.

I want to give up. I want to just give up and get this all over with, but Frank would kill me. He’d pull my body out of the river it will inevitably end up in, find some obscure resurrection spell that only Frank’s insane levels of research could dig up, and bring me back just so he could murder me for giving up.

Just kidding. He’d use the resurrection spell to bring me back and then cry in relief for a while. And I’d say sorry, sorry, you know I don’t do these things on purpose. We’d set up our mattresses on the floor and sleep within inches of each other, like we were five again and inseparable, or twelve and sick with that really bad flu that went around and only able to get to sleep with each other nearby, or any time after a case that went bad somehow, went bad in the way that means bullets and near misses and that tight ball in your throat like a stone pulling you under water. He would tell me about his finals and I would listen, actually listen. Mom would buy us icecream, vanilla for Frank and strawberry for me, and we’d watch some stupid, stupid movie while we ate it. I’d fall asleep leaning against him and Frank wouldn’t mind because he’s Frank, he doesn’t mind stupid things like that, he puts up with all the shit I pull. And I’d say sorry, sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to Frank, please forgive me.

“Still with us?” the voice says, and I surface slowly, pulling my head up from where it’s sunk to my chest and manage to glare at him against the harsh light. He’d been gone just a bit ago. Conferring, I assumed.

“Fuck off,” I say, monotone, because I’m too tired and in too much pain to think of anything better.

“You certainly hero worship that older brother of yours,” the man says. Still shadowed. Always in shadow. I haven’t seen any of their faces. That’s stupid, why do they care when I’m not getting out of here? “I wonder if you’d be more willing to cooperate if I acquired him?”

Every muscle in my body goes taut and my body screams against the sudden pain as I try to lunge forward. If sheer force of will could murder someone, he’d be dead right now, dead and in so many pieces the Mounties couldn’t find him.

“Don’t you touch him you fucking piece of filth,” I snarl. “Go near him and I won’t give you a goddamn thing.”

“Such spirit.” It’s mocking, but interested. He knows, now. He knows how much power he has over me. “And if I promise not to.” He’s leaning forward, elbows on his knees and chin propped on his hands. “What would you give me for that promise?” I can almost make out his features. Everything in me feels sick and roiled. Could he actually get to Frank? Surely dad would be smart about it, put everyone into protective custody. Right?

But can I bank Frank’s safety on that? What if dad thought it was just something connected to my current case, what if none of them have any protection? What if these people can get through the protection? I can’t put Frank in this room, I can’t put him anywhere near Mark. Anywhere near this shadowy figure or the glaring light, the constant smell of blood.

They’ll kill me once they know I haven’t got any information worth knowing.

“Everything,” I say.

Frank’s always been worth ten of me, anyway.

“Put Paul on the comm,” the shadowed man says, still watching me closely. There’s a pause.

“Yes?” It’s a clear voice, light, completely in control. I don’t know why I’m still noticing these things, it’s pointless. I guess my brain’s on overdrive. I know my heart is, beating so fast I feel like it’s going to break through my skin.

“Do you have an eye on the older Hardy boy?” the man asks.

“Just as you ordered, sir,” he says. “He’s alone at home, at the moment, looking through his brother’s papers. Seems irritated at the lack of order.”

“He’s going to hurt himself, restrain him.” The man at the table is impatient and I want to laugh, to scream. Why does he care about my health now, it doesn’t matter, nothing matters but Frank staying alive and safe.

“Leave him alone,” I say, and my voice is cracking. “Leave him alone, please, I said I’d tell you everything I know.”

“Stay on standby and be prepared, Paul,” the man at the table instructs, and then he turns to me. “So, Joseph. Tell me everything you know.”

“They were unmarked envelopes, not posted, slipped into our mail box. I can’t remember specific times, it was a Sunday and the following Wednesday in mid-October, I think maybe the 13th and the 16th but I can’t remember for sure, you’d have to check a calendar. First one was delivered sometime before we collected our mail at noon, second one was definitely delivered overnight because I checked first thing in the morning. Letters pasted out from the newspaper, I think the local one because of a couple letters that stuck out but I’m not positive, it could have been a different one. “ I’m babbling, spilling out everything, barely aware of the hands still holding me still. They have to believe me. This is important. This is the only thing that is important, now.

“That’s all?” He’s sneering.

“Dusted for fingerprints but found none, checked the paper but it was those cheap notepads you can buy for like five dollars at any major store, checked the envelopes but they were the most basic kind of envelope you can get at the post office. I couldn’t find anything identifying. I swear. Phrasing of the note indicated a male, I think, but they were too short to get much out of them.”

“Truthfulness is such a lost virtue these days.” A disappointed sigh. “Paul?”

“Yes?” I freeze. My heart has stopped beating completely for the long moment of silence.

“Bring in Frank Hardy.” He tosses a look my way as he gets up and leaves. “And waterboard the hell out of Joseph. I want the truth out of him, and I want it now.” I don’t move at all as they untie me, and they have to drag me out of the room and down the hall, limp and unresisting. I think I’m shaking.

I lose.

Game over.

+

13:07, December 15

I catch a look at one of their watches on the way down. Two in the afternoon. Later than I thought.

Still not long enough.

On. Off. “I told you.” On. Off. “I wasn’t lying, I swear.” On. Off. “Please, you have to believe me.”

The fifth time they lift the cloth off I just start laughing hysterically and I don’t stop. I’ve lost it. I really, truly have. I want to stop, because it’s making them angry and I can’t make them angry, not with Frank’s life riding on the line, but I can’t stop. They hadn’t even bothered to strap me in, realizing I wasn’t any threat to them, so when I start sliding I end up on the floor, curled up in a ball.

“He’s no use like this,” someone says.

“Might as well lock him in and let him think about things.” A different voice. I’m choking on laughter and my own blood.

“Yeah,” the first guy agrees. There’s the sound of shuffling feet and the door closes behind them, the distinctive click of a lock a moment later.

It takes five minutes for me to stop laughing, and then I pull myself together and up, lean against the back wall. Try and think. It took them a while to get me here. If I can get out before they get Frank here, get out and tell the police. How?

Two minutes later the lights go off. It’s probably a trick. I hear someone yelling on the other side of the door and someone is helping me up, guiding me through an opening in the wall that closes behind us. I go along because why not?

“Sorry,” the guy supporting me keeps saying. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have. Oh my god. I thought. They always have people placed in the police and they always hear when someone’s investigating and I thought, well, they wouldn’t be watching you, and they’d never suspect a teenager of doing it, they wouldn’t even look at you twice when they try to find out who did it. I never thought – I thought you were safe, I swear to god. There must have been someone higher up I missed, someone who’s paid off and I didn’t know about and they followed the trail back to you somehow, oh god, why won’t you stop bleeding?”

“Jesus, do you ever shut up?” I mumble.

“You’ve got to move faster,” he says. “They might try and follow us.”

“Well yeah,” I say. “It’s got to look convincing, right? It’s all a. A trick or something.”

There’s light up ahead and someone yelling my name.

“It’s not, I promise,” the boy (it is just a boy, maybe sixteen) says. “It just took me a while to figure out how to get you out.”

“But they’ve got Frank,” I say. “We have to go get Frank.”

“My dad was bluffing,” the boy reassures me, and something in my heart seizes as the person yelling my name gets closer.

“Oh,” I say very simply, and fall down. It’s Frank who falls to his knees beside me and takes my hand, then lets go as he realizes what a mess it is and grips my shoulders instead, tight. I’ll have bruises there tomorrow. It’s okay. I don’t mind. There are police behind him, passing us in whatever secret passageway the boy had led us out of.

“Fuck,” Frank says. “Fuck, fuck, fucking hell, Joe.”

Frank doesn’t swear much. It’s kind of a thing of his – he’s the mild mannered polite older brother, I’m the mouthy screw up younger brother. Emphasis on the screw up part, after the past couple of days, I guess.

I must look pretty bad.

I feel pretty bad.

“Hi,” I say. There was something important. Oh yes. “Merry Christmas,” I add, and pass out.

+

09:26, December 16

They keep telling me to rest, in the hospital. Rest.

“Tell me what happened,” I tell Frank. He’s been at my side every second he could, and if I’ve been clinging I think it’s pretty understandable.

“The kid contacted us about an hour before we got you out,” Frank says. “He said he had a plan, he could get us in and you out at the same time, eliminate the possibility of you being used as a hostage. So we got set up where he said as soon as possible and waited.”

“So you were there, waiting?” I have to know. “You weren’t at home? You were under protection?”

“Dad put us all under protection as soon as he realized you were gone,” Frank says. “He wasn’t going to take any chances.”

“Good.” I take a deep breath and another. Maybe someday I’ll tell Frank how they broke me. Maybe not. He shouldn’t have to know that they used him to hurt me. The air feels clean and fresh. “The nurse said my face is going to scar.”

There’d been a ring on the hand of the guy who slapped me, way back at the beginning. The cut had been open for hours by the time I got to the hospital.

“It looks dashing,” Frank says. “Distinguishing, even.”

“Do you think so?” I say.

“I do.”

+

23:14, December 16

I wake up to muted sobbing, my sheets soaked. Frank is holding my good hand, leaning towards me.

“Come on, Joe,” he’s saying. “Come on, wake up.” The sobbing’s me, I realize, and force myself to stop. Frank’s face is white, pinched and strained with fury. I’ve never seen him this angry in my life.

“’m okay,” I say. “I’m okay.”

Frank makes a gesture with his free hand like he wants to contradict me, then drops it. The fury’s still there, but it’s disappearing under the lost expression surfacing on his face.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admits.

“Don’t go,” I say. “That’s what. Don’t go.”

“I can do that,” he says, and his grip on my hand tightens.

11:58, December 17

I have a lot of visitors. Frank kicks most of them out in a couple of minutes. Iola stays the longest besides Mom and Dad and Aunt Gertrude, trying to make light conversation and not look at my hand or face. She doesn’t always succeed, but she does the best out of almost everyone. I appreciate it, but I don’t know what to say or her, or to any of them.

The kid comes by to visit me. He’s terribly quiet most of the time, looking at me solemnly like he has to memorize every injury I have. I want to shake him and tell him he did fantastic, but there’s too much of me still back in that room to not be a little angry with him, to not also want to shake him and demand to know why he ever brought me into this, why he didn’t come up with some other brilliant plan.

“Thank you very much for believing me,” he says, stilted, at the end.

“Yeah.” What else is there to say? I don’t watch him leave.

“You know, you were gone a day and a half,” Frank says eventually from his seat beside me. He’s not looking at my hand or my face, but my chest, the bruises he saw spread across it like an arc of dark flowers.

“I know.”

“It was the longest day and a half of my life.” It sounds like a confession. I don’t know what of.

“Mine too,” I say, and it’s almost funny. To me, at least. Frank’s face twists, like he’d forgotten and remembered, like he’d just watched me die.

“Fuck,” he says under his breath. “I need some air.”

“Okay.” He stumbles over the doorway on his way out. When he comes back fifteen minutes later, he’s carrying doughnuts for both of us, the awful powdered kind you find in hospital vending machines, smile a little forced. We split them exactly evenly.

+

15:18, December 18

There’s not really that much wrong with me, nothing that needs long term hospitalization. They say there doesn’t appear to be any long term damage to my lungs. I see Frank and Dad wince and Mom swallow hard. Aunt Gertrude is the only one who remains stoic, and I’m grateful to her for her calm attention at the back of the group.

“Obviously he’ll need to come in for regular check ups on his fingers, what with the state the bones were in,” the doctor says.

There had been a hammer involved, at one point. I swallow convulsively and fix my gaze on Aunt Gertrude.

But other than that, it seems I’m fine. No internal bleeding, just normal trauma-related symptoms that have alleviated properly over my bed rest and would be best served by resting at home.

“He should consider a therapist,” the doctor adds, and that’s when I snap.

“He’s right here,” I snarl. My good hand is trembling.

“Of course,” the doctor says, soothing, but I’m so tired of people talking over me.

“He just needs to go home,” Aunt Gertrude says, walking by the rest of my white-faced family, and pats me on the head briskly, like I’m five years old again. Which sucks, but is still better than everyone else who’s trying to pretend they didn’t notice my outburst and aren’t agreeing with the doctor.

I’m silent the whole way home. Mom chatters, telling me about sleeping arrangements.

“And we decided in the end that it would probably be okay for you to stay upstairs in your own room, since the stairs shouldn’t be much of a problem if you don’t take them often and tire yourself out, and Frank is going to put his mattress on your floor so that there’s always somewhere nearby.” Frank is watching me, hesitant.

I nod at him. It’s all I can muster, but it seems to satisfy him.

I don’t sleep in my bed, instead dumping all of my blankets and pillows on Frank’s mattress and curling up beside him.

“I’m fine,” I tell him, staring up at the ceiling.

“No you aren’t.”

I don’t answer for a while. It’s true, after all.

“I will be fine,” I say eventually.

“Yes,” Frank says. “I know.”

+

14:00, December 22

People keep coming to visit me at home. I don’t really want them to. Chet and Iola and Callie come together. They’re probably the best of the lot. I think Iola’s threatened Chet into being cheerful and normal, given a couple of the looks she shoots him when he gets awkward. Callie feels almost the same as ever for the most part. She and Iola have always been good at dealing with the crazier stuff that comes from our cases.

Tony had helped me get past security in the shipyard, and every time he looks at me there’s guilt and fear on his face. He doesn’t stay long.

Biff is just Biff, but he keeps flexing his hand almost unconsciously when he sees mine and I have to fix my gaze deliberately on his face to keep from seeing it.

Mom fusses. Dad stays home, which is weird enough in and of itself if he weren’t also always hanging around the room, finding something to do wherever I am. Aunt Gertrude just makes me eat plenty and orders me to get enough sleep. Sometimes she runs interference for me when I just want to go sit outside by myself for a bit. I have a new found appreciation for Aunt Gertrude and her no nonsense, domineering attitude after the past couple of days. Mom’s always been gentle, and she keeps walking around like she wants to cry, but Aunt Gertrude ropes her into project after project, keeping her busy.

“Thanks,” I tell her when she’s stopped mom hovering yet again by remembering that the garden needs weeded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she sniffs, but she puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes before charging off after mom. No doubt the garden will be in excellent condition in an hour or two.

I generally go up to take a nap by two, not able to deal with one more sympathizing face, one more person who wants to see the walking wounded themselves and tell their friends. Frank inevitably follows me up, reading beside me as he leans against the wall, one hand stroking my hair as I fall asleep.

“I’m tired of people,” I say.

“We don’t have to let them in,” Frank says calmly.

“Okay, let’s not.” I know I sound petulant, but I don’t care. “I don’t want anyone but you.” Frank’s hand tightens in my hair for a moment before he forces it to relax.

“They threatened me, right?” he says. His voice is almost completely steady. I’m silent for a long time, which is confirmation just as much as saying it aloud would have been. He makes a choked noise, lifts his hand for a moment but cuts himself off, dropping it to my shoulder, trembling.

“Yeah.” I say it finally. “They said they were going to bring you in. Said they had a guy watching you.”

“Is that what - ” he pauses, fighting for composure. “You told them the truth then, didn’t you?”

“Of course.”

“But you knew, you had to know they’d kill you if they realized that you really didn’t know anything.” He sounds desperate now, but I can’t look up and meet his gaze.

“I guess I got lucky,” I say. “They didn’t believe it was the truth.”

“You sacrificed yourself on the off chance that I might get hurt if you didn’t,” Frank says. “Joe, promise me you won’t ever do that again. I couldn’t survive you dying for me. I couldn’t.” I lace his fingers in mine and turn my head, kissing his palm.

“For similar reasons, I can’t make that promise.” I say it as quietly as I can. Frank laughs raggedly.

“We’re a matched set of codependent idiots, huh,” he says. I nod and let go of his hand, and he leans down and kisses me on the forehead. “Do you want me to read aloud to you?”

“Sure.” It’s boring as hell, one of his textbooks, but it’s Frank’s voice, a little rough around the edges but safe and sound and strong, and that’s really all that matters.

+

16:28, December 24

The guy at the table in shadow, he was the dad. Carl Smith. An innocuous name.

I go to visit him in jail on Christmas Eve. Frank wants to go in with me, but I ask him to wait outside.

“I’ll be okay,” I say. He’s not convinced, but then he’s seen me wake up at night slick with sweat and trembling. Perhaps the most out of everyone in the family, he knows what this man did to me. He lets me go anyways.

Carl smiles pleasantly at me.

“Joseph.” I think I might legally change my name to Joe. Eliminate the possibility of ever being called that again. “I see you’re healing.”

“Rapidly.” I’m not interested in pleasantries. “I know you still have men not in prison.”

“I know you and your family are under police protection.” It’s a metaphorical check.

“You can come after me if you want,” I say. “I’ll play that game, and I’ll beat you. But if one of your men so much as touches Frank, I will find you and I will break every bone in your body.” I rest my hand very visibly on the table, and his gaze drops to it for a moment before flicking back up to my face.

“And the rest of your family?” There’s a mocking edge to it.

“Same goes for them.” I stand up. “There’s no reason to come after me, of course. My testimony will have very little to do with your sentence in the end. It’s mostly your son’s that you should be concerned about, and you won’t get anywhere near him.”

“And yet you suspected I would come after you anyway.” He shrugs. “You’re a good judge of character.”

“If it has to be anyone, it’s just me and you.” I push my chair back into the table. “My brother is a good man, Mr. Smith.” Our eyes meet. “I strive to be like him. I don’t always succeed.” It’s a threat we both understand.

“You’re right,” Carl says. “There isn’t any need or me to come after you or your family. I will not.” I think he is telling the truth. As he turns to go, he shoots a last look back. “It’s a shame you weren’t born my son. I could have done a great deal with you.”

Frank is waiting outside, head bowed as he sits on a bench.

“Praying?” I say lightly.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” I sit down beside him and lean against his shoulder. He rests his face on my hair. “What did you have to talk to him about?”

“We came to an agreement,” I say. “I don’t think we’ll need police protection anymore.”

That parting shot of Carl’s lingers. I’ve always tried to live up to Frank’s expectations, to be as forgiving and decent as him. But the second he was in danger that snapped like a broken rubber band. I’d threatened to kill someone.

That wasn’t right. I hadn’t threatened to kill Carl, I had stated I would kill him and I had meant it. That’s worse.

He was torturing me. It’s a justification, yes. He wasn’t when I threatened to break every bone in his body, and meant that just as much. I’m not sure what that says about me.

“Frank?” I say on the drive home.

“Yeah?”

“Am I a good person?”

“Yes,” he says immediately.

“Even if I wanted to kill someone?”

“Yes.” He says it fiercely, with the same conviction as I had told Carl I would kill him, his hands so tight on the wheel his knuckles are white. “Yes, Joe.”

I nod but don’t say anything else. I don’t think I believe him just yet.

+

06:54, December 25

I wake up in the early morning, though this time not from dreaming. It’s a welcome change. The air is crisp and clean, and I lie next to Frank on our mattresses on the floor and breathe it in slowly.

Frank rolls over, still half asleep, and his chin lands on my shoulder, nose tickling my neck, his arm across my stomach like an anchor holding me steady.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, breath warm against my skin.

It feels like a promise.