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Joe was seated in the middle of the couch, balancing the Wii remote on one leg and his bowl of cereal on the other, when Frank trudged in. And stopped directly between Joe and his game on the television. "Um. Can I help you?"

 

"Homecoming," Frank said with a sigh that seemed as if he's been holding his breath for hours.

 

"It's a school dance. On the 28th this year. Some people bring a date. There are usually refreshme-"

 

"No!" In the background, the boss took one final swing at Joe's character and the GAME OVER screen popped up. "Are we allowed to bring people from other schools?"

 

The younger brother picked up his cereal bowl and leaned back, raising an eyebrow at Frank. "Do you, just, not listen to the school announcements or what?"

 

"Huh."

 

With an eyeroll, Joe filled his brother in on the situation. Bayport High students are allowed to bring dates from another high school as long as they bring a school ID and a ticket is bought beforehand. Honestly, it had been that way for the last two years (three years for Frank). As social as Frank was, he hadn't really cared for the homecoming dance - not enough to listen to the announcements, apparently - much less care about bringing a date. Unless...

 

"Frank, is this about -"

 

Joe's brother interrupted with a cough, before mumbling an excuse to rush out to the kitchen. Subtle, bro.

 

A couple days later, the two brothers were sitting on their beds, one surrounded by the current case file, the other by Calculus homework. Joe couldn't help but feel the nervous energy radiating off of Frank, more than the usual anxiety that propagated from math problems. Figuring that they'd never had a problem speaking up when something needed to be said, Joe turned back to the evidence in front of him. A couple of the details just weren't connecting, but the missing piece would be off-limits. Perhaps, the upcoming homecoming events would allow one of the boys access to the financial records. Although if Frank's theory about the principal leaving them the clue was correct...The big mystery was figuring out which school board member was spending the money, not why.  

 

"Hey, Joe." Pause. "How far is River Heights from here?"

 

Gosh, was he still debating this whole thing? "Just over an hour by train, I think. ...You should just call her and ask, dude."

 

The tip of Frank's mechanical pencil snapped off and a blush lit up his ears. "Wh- To homecoming? No, I... You didn't know I was planning to ask Nancy."

 

A sharp laugh charged out of Joe. His brother may be the patient, perceptive one, but his lack of subtlety when off-the-case was always hilarious. "Even if I didn't, you just confirmed it for me."

 

At this, a pout decorated Frank’s face and he shifted his vision back to the homework. The three sleuths had only been teaming up for a little over a year now, but Frank had become really attached to the girl detective. Sure, Nancy and him would bicker near-constantly over the right way to follow a lead or which suspect was worth following the most closely. At the end of the day, the squabbles were forgotten in favor of combining their skills to help those that needed it. It would be a lie to say that Joe wasn’t a little jealous of the way that the two appeared to read each other’s minds; the job of telepath was supposed to be the younger brother’s. But he would never have a reason to resent Nancy. If he needed a person to have his back, Joe trusted that he could call her. Plus, anyone who made Frank happy made Joe happy.

 

“Do… Do you think she would say yes?” The uncharacteristic stutter gave Joe pause. His first instinct was to say yes, of course, you and Nancy are like puzzle pieces. Or maybe something more exciting. Like Wes Anderson and perfect symmetry.  But they did have Ned to consider. He and Nancy had been an item for as long as anyone could bother to remember. They just were. Clark and Lois. Tom and Jerry. Ned and Nancy.

 

Of course, all this didn’t mean that Nancy would turn down Frank’s offer. Neither Ned nor Nancy were the jealous type, and it was all in good fun! It wasn’t prom or anything, just homecoming (to be fair, Joe still wasn’t positive on the distinction). “I doubt she’d say no. There’s no harm in asking.”

 

“As friends?” Frank said. “It wouldn’t be anything more than as friends.”

 

And do you both know that? “Bro, if you don’t call her by the end of the night, I will be taking matters into my own hands.”

 

Frank’s phone was out in a flash. “So completely unnecessary.” Joe smirked as his brother dialed, made a mistake in his haste, and redialed. “Nancy! My favorite detective… No, no, not a case, uh, buddy. I was wondering if you would want to come to Bayport’s homecoming dance! …Just two friends, ya know… Oh, wait, really?”

 

That’s when a thought occurred to Joe. Most would say it was not a very good thought, and probably one that should be shelved along with the genius idea of ‘baking cookies in exchange for evidence from the police’ (Note: Joe’s baking skills were not in question here, but rather his patience and ability to not eat raw dough). You know what they say, two’s a party, three’s a crowd, four is an even better party, probably with way more opportunities to show off his athletic advantage over Frank.

 

He texted Ned. bayport's hoco is the 28th. u should be my plus one!

 

Later, it'd occur to Joe that maybe this was going too far as an attempt to toy with his brother. (Even later than that, it'd occur that this really wasn't about his brother at all).

 

The tone of glee in Frank's voice had only slightly dissolved when Joe brought his attention back. He and Nancy were now discussing how he'd pay for the train ticket and maybe we could have a movie marathon that night? Frank laughed as he eventually left the room, phone still held to his ear. Gosh, those two could get off on the weirdest tangents. Joe was pretty sure he'd heard Frank say something about the Smithsonian and secret tunnels.

 

A text from Ned came in, vibrating Joe's cell phone. How do you feel about matching ties?

 

The ensuing grin seemed to map every part of Joe's body. Next to Frank, Ned Nickerson was probably the person Joe felt the most comfortable with. Joe wouldn't take a plane to cheer up just anyone. what do u think about blue??

 

The response was nearly instantaneous. To match your eyes! :-)

 

Oh. Christ.

 

For the most part, Joe was fairly confident in himself. He was the strong, athletic half of a two-man detecting team known throughout the state (and in many international cities by certain policemen). Because most people knew Frank to be the rational and tactical one did not mean that Joe lacked these traits, by any means. Compared to his brother, Joe's tendency to flourish in social situations and sense of comedy were points of pride. Simply existing in the way that he wished to were enough for the younger Hardy boy.

 

So his sexuality was never something he'd seen as a barrier. It just was, exactly as everything else that made up Joseph Hardy. He'd adopted 'bisexual' a few years ago as the label that best fit him. Mrs. Hardy had too. The revelation may have taken a tad longer to settle with their father, but nothing could come between Fenton and his sons (he had told them before the investigations began that he'd never be prouder of anyone than he was of Frank and Joe).

 

Coming out to Frank though... There was the kicker. It was too impassive of a word to say that Joe was nervous. The Hardy boys had been best friends since, well, forever in Joe's eyes. He considered himself lucky to have a sibling like Frank, just as good on the inside as he was out. A world without Frank was one that Joe struggled to imagine (and would prefer not to). His older brother had supported him through everything and would through anything, that Joe knew, but to be seen as different by his closest confidante scared Joe. Alternately, the idea that Frank had perceived this all along terrified Joe. Especially if it was before Joe had it all figured out himself. As self-confident as he was, the right to present himself how he desired held much value.

 

Iola Morton was his first and only girlfriend (no boyfriends yet; though an arsonist had flirted with him once before the duo realized that all evidence pointed to him). Last winter, she became the third person to know he wasn't straight. Considering Iola was the first Joe had told outside of family, she took it exceptionally well and insisted they go out for celebration ice cream. He got a chocolate cone. She had a banana split covered in rainbow sprinkles.

 

They broke up amicably a few months later, largely due to her newfound dedication to Yale and his inundation of professional cases.

 

It was between that time and the present that Joe had, unconsciously, shifted his attentions to Nancy's boyfriend. His actions were innocent and feelings unrealized until the moment where that gosh darn text came in. Joe read it again. To match your eyes! :-)

 

Did Joe even know the color of Ned's eyes? Would he have to start paying attention to that sort of thing? Joe texted back a smiley face of his own; sans nose, because what the hell, Ned.

 

Another text popped up, this time from Frank.

 

Tell me that nancy has suddenly picked up a lying habit and you didnt invite ned

 

Whoops. 'Demonstrate self-preservation' might be a skill that Joe silently added to his Junior Year Resolutions before texting back: suddenly?

 

***

 

Nancy Drew had many skills, yet she hadn't quite mastered the ability to do her make-up on a moving train, smooth as the advertisements made it out to be. The liner had had to wait until she made it to the Hardy house unless Frank wouldn't have minded her arriving minus one eye. Outside the door of the small bathroom, Nancy heard Joe laughing loudly and Ned recounting a story of the first - and last - time he'd tried to tail a suspect of Nancy's through a grocery store.

 

Being banned from Donny's Dailies wasn't nearly as funny when there was an emergency. A chocolate emergency. Girl detectives have a lot of chocolate emergencies.

 

One layer of powder later, Nancy made her entrance into the foyer where the three boys were waiting. Joe and Ned were leaning against the far wall having moved on to another story, this time told by Joe, detailing the way he and Frank ("but not so much Frank") had exposed an art forger in their area. The older Hardy boy had had his back turned to Nancy, listening intently to the story and having completely given up on interjecting his corrections.

 

"I was promised a mystery tonight, right, Frank? Or did I completely waste this dress?"

 

Each boy turned his attention to Nancy. Ned grinned and made his way over to Nancy to give her a quick peck on the cheek, whispering "you look lovely."

 

Joe's smile was smaller, but genuine as he insisted that the emerald green really was her color. It was Frank who was left speechless. After several beats of silence that brought a faint flush to Nancy's cheeks, Frank brought himself back out of the clouds. "Y-you look - I like your - face."

 

"Always impressing us with that Ivy-League vocab, Franklin," his brother laughed out. The glare that fired from Frank's eyes had the potential to kill had Ned not quickly turned to the doorway, suggesting it was time to take their leave.

 

The car ride to the dance was full of selfies (thanks to Joe and Nancy), seat belts (of course, Ned), and nerves (kudos to Frank). Ned drove, sharing the front seat with Joe who wouldn't take his fingers off the soft blue tie that Ned had brought to ensure that they were tie-twins. In the back, Nancy and Frank had drifted towards the middle as much as the vehicle allowed and were whispering excitedly about any number of topics. The conversation had started a touch awkwardly on Frank's half, but the mention of a new underground code based on the French verlan argot brought the teen sleuth to life. He allowed himself to be dragged into a bet regarding Sherlock Holmes, drug use, and Conan Doyle. Frank would never understand it - Nancy's hold over him - but he couldn't think of anywhere else he'd rather be. The high of solving an international kidnapping was only emulated by the light of Nancy's sideways smirk and her titian hair falling from its place behind her ear.



Before long, the quartet had arrived at Bayport High and began the wait outside the gym doors as teachers and assistant principals checked school IDs and tickets. The Hardy's town was cold as any other northeastern town in mid-October, and, as was his date-ly duty, Frank offered up his sports jacket to Nancy. She pretended not to be hyper-aware of the smell and feel of it on her skin.

 

Nancy’s hobby-cum-job entailed a lot of thinking so she did a lot of thinking. A lot of this thinking, she would be unhurried to admit, was centered on another thinker she knew. Actually, when given the numbers to properly add up, Nancy might even say that a good ⅕ of off-the-job thinks had some connection to Franklin Hardy. Smart, quick-witted, firm in his beliefs, not too hard on the eyes, a brother who got along well with her boyfriend.

 

Ah, right. The boyfriend. She loves Ned, and Ned knows this. Except all that Nancy knows really is Ned. The two of them had had discussions before, about maybe taking a break when college rolled around, because if it was meant to be, they’d gravitate back to each other, right?

 

Today, it seemed the galactic bodies had different plans, and her center of mass was tied to that of another guy. Although, she thought, looking to where her boyfriend was getting a piggy-back ride from Joe, maybe his is too.

 

The quartet were shuffled into the dance after a cursory glance at their ID cards and found themselves between a decorated archway and the Bayport Bugle’s lead photographer. “Say cheese!” she squealed, grinning as if she were the subject of the photo.

 

Nancy squished herself between Ned and Frank, each of whom had an arm around her back (Frank’s just slightly closer to her waist). Joe hung a bit to the side before Ned reached over to tuck him under his arm, more intimately than one might have expected. The photographer took two photos insisting that “you look at the camera, now, Hardy!” Neither of the brothers actually knew who she had been referring to.

 

Later, Frank would get the image e-mailed it to him by the Bugle’s editor:

hey, frank! had to forward these on to you. one of the best photos of the night i’d say? the most genuine smiles at least. :) tell your date she looked gorgeous. - donna

 

In the first image, Frank saw himself giving Ned a wary look, and Joe seemed to be blushing despite the downward glance. He scrolled down and bit back a grin. The second photograph was striking in the way it captured the joy of the night. All four of them were beaming at the camera, and he could feel how comfortable they were with each other. Donna was right though, it was Nancy who stuck out, a moviestar right off the red carpet.

 

At the moment, Frank didn’t know any of this and opted not to take the photographer up on her offer to see the pictures. Nancy cooed, inquiring into how she could get a copy, and Ned gave Joe a soft fistbump at waist-level.

 

“So… Do you want to take a spin on the dancefloor? See the sights? Overhear the… hears," Nancy suggested to get Frank's attention. He nodded, more wishing to dance with her than solve the case he'd hinted at when inviting her here.

 

"You have a favorite song, Nan?" he asked, as they slid into the gym where most of the students were grinding and whirling. "I think I know the DJ...."

 

This left Joe and Ned in the locker-lined hallways where the photo booths and tables with snacks and refreshments were. Out of the flash of the photography, everything was pretty dark as well as a tad humid and Ned found his coat getting a little warm.  "Do you wanna -" he started, at the same time that Joe said:

 

"Need some punch?"

 

He laughed and nodded, following the Hardy boy towards the group congregating around Gatorade coolers and the stacks of Solo cups. Since they had all gotten together at the brothers’ house, the impression that Ned had gotten from Joe was that he was nervous. It didn’t really make sense, he figured, for the all-around popular guy to be worried about coming to a school dance. Was it the fact that Nancy was going with Frank and Joe was worried about his reaction? True, Ned maybe should have felt a little more jealous, but Frank and Nancy were good friends and Ned was just happy to spend time with the group.

 

“Oh-em-gee, Joe!” The two of them turned. A petite girl  in a pink dress stood there, grinning. Ned didn’t recognize her, but Joe leaned in for a quick hug. Something about their familiarity made Ned a little uneasy.

 

“Hi, Iola. You look lovely,” Joe told her.

 

“As do you!” The girl’s... Iola’s (Was Ned supposed to recognize that name?) eyes flickered between the two of them, and their ties, before widening. “Joe, I didn’t realize you had a -!”

 

“Ned!” Joe was quick to interrupt. “I mean. This is Ned. Nickerson. He’s a friend from River Heights.” Her mouth formed an ‘O’ shape for a split second, before continuing to smile. “Ned, this is Iola Morton… She and I used to date.”

 

The River Heights boy stepped forward to shake her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

 

After a brief beat of silence, Joe asked, “Did you come with anyone?”

 

Iola shook her head. “Nope!” The ‘p’ popped. “Flying solo. Well, solo and with a group of the other girls from the softball team. Plus Callie, of course.” Callie and Frank had been boyfriend and girlfriend during his freshman year and still occasionally went out bowling or to dinner together.

 

“Oh? Frank should be around here somewhere with Nancy. You should make sure he saves a dance for her.”

 

She let out a chuckle at that. “I’m on it.” Pause. “With Nancy Drew? Did those two finally get it together then?”

 

A cough came from beside Joe. “Not quite,” Ned said, but didn’t elaborate.

 

After tilting his head at his date, Joe filled Iola in. She slapped a hand to her face and put the other on her hip. “Golly! I am all over the place with my conclusions today. Maybe I’ll do less damage on the dance floor.”

 

“And maybe we’ll see you out there,” Ned added with a smile.

 

“Hopefully. You two look really cute together!” Iola Morton made her exit with a quick wink and a wave.

 

Joe went quiet again, looking down at his shoe tracing patterns on the tiled floor. Ned may not be a detective, but Joe guessed he would know what Iola had been about to say regarding the two of them. Looking out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the other boy examining the class council’s decorations with a small smile. Ugh. Was he making this weird? Ned seemed to be genuinely having fun and here Joe was over-thinking every interaction. We’re friends, dang it, I can act like it.

 

With renewed energy, Joe grabbed the punch for the two of them and struck up a conversation about the newest comic book movies. Ned may be more educated in the source material than he was, but that didn’t mean Joe wasn’t passionate about the success of each film in appealing to a larger audience. They searched for an empty table in the small seating area and found one to sit across from each other. Halfway through a debate on which of the major companies more successfully translated their stories to the screen (“They should have used spandex!” “Nedley Cooper, what are you even saying?!”), Ned’s leg brushed up against his, and Joe tensed, but neither moved. Eventually, their chairs had somehow moved from being horizontal to being adjacent. They hadn’t yet made it out to the dance floor when a sweaty Frank and Nancy excitedly ran up to them.

 

Ned lifted his head up from Joe’s shoulder where he’d been cracking up over some ‘totally hipster’ comment the Hardy boy had made about the Xbox versus PlayStation war (Joe vehemently denied making any showy-offy hipster comments.) “You two look like you’re having fun,” Nancy said, with a smirk.

 

“And you look like you have a lead,” Ned replied. Joe agreed based on the expression Frank had, equal parts distracted-thinking and eagerness.

 

That launched Nancy in on an explanation. “Well, one of the school board members decided to chaperone the dance, right? And Frank was saying that the financial records had to have been altered by someone on that level.”

 

Frank nodded, and continued. “Remember, Joe, how we thought the principal gave us the secret message? I think we were right, because -”

 

“Mr. School Board was on his phone and mentioned something about the administration starting their own investigation -”

 

“Thus why we got called in.” Frank took a breath, preparing for a big reveal. “But this guy also said that he found a way to unlock the secretaries’ office and whoever was on the other end -”

 

“Needs to act tonight,” Nancy took over. “So we’re going to beat them to it and look for the records ourselves!”

 

Both stopped talking, grinning at the other, flushed and seemingly unaware that they were standing with Nancy’s arm wrapped around his (Ned noticed, and appeared to nod to himself, as if making a decision). “Well,” Joe began. “It seems like you two have it under control.”

 

“I’d say so,” Frank agreed. “You two should go dance a bit while we risk detention, yeah?”

 

With that, the two scurried down the hallway, in search of the main office. Hopefully, their other half would take the hint and get their butts into the gym before Ned missed another Nicki Minaj song. Nancy would be a miserable sleuth if she hadn’t noticed that ‘Super Bass’ was at the top of his iPod’s 25 Most Played.

 

Frank took the lead as he knew his way around the high school, and Nancy followed close behind admiring the boy’s… detective skills. Soon, they found the door, and - sure enough - a key was hanging on a lanyard on the doorknob. Not the most inconspicuous of plans, but, hey, whatever works, Nancy thought, grabbing it and unlocking the office. The duo slipped in and began quietly rifling through filing cabinets.

 

A few minutes passed before Frank whispered, “Gotcha!”

 

Nancy put away the papers she’d been sorting through and made her way over to where he was leaning over a spreadsheet. Leaning against the desk beside him, she asked, “Is that all the proof we needed?”

 

“I think so…” He nodded, and she leaned in to see where he was pointing. There was definitely a sizable portion of the school’s funding unaccounted for without explanation.

 

Nancy’s fingers brushed Frank’s as she directed his attention to the name of a donor at the bottom of the paper. “Could this be Phone Guy? They have the same first name,” she whispered and Frank felt her breath against his arm.

 

“It’s possible…” He turned to look at her and found their faces closer together than he expected. “Uh…”

 

Her attention was still focused on the document; thankfully she hadn’t seen Frank glance at the lips she was biting in concentration. It seemed he had been frozen a moment too long, and she turned, nearly bumping her forehead against his face. “Oh!”

 

If his distinguished observation skills were being utilized at this moment, Frank may have picked up on the slight blush the girl detective was sporting. Instead the majority of his brainpower was being used on not leaning forward just far enough to graze Nancy’s lips with his own. He prayed that the darkness of the room hid not just their sleuthing, but the feelings he had been desperately keeping under wraps. He doubted it. The Hardys probably used up the last of their luck on that case with the homicidal clown and the cult carniv -

 

Frank’s thoughts were interrupted by arms around his neck and Nancy - Nancy kissing him. He was paralyzed for only a second before wrapping his arms around her back. Oh, gosh, how many times had he imagined this? She pulled back for a second to smile at him and Frank took note of every sensation he felt. There was heat radiating from Nancy through his two layers of sleeves. His lips were tingling softly at the absence of hers. Her signature fragrance of eau d’who-knows seemed to inhabit every part of him. Frank moved as if to kiss her again when the door slammed open and the lights flipped on.

 

Nancy jumped away, looking more fear-stricken than Frank knew her to be. He was still blinking from the glare of the light, trying to see who had (interrupted) arrived.

 

“G-Golly!” his date squeaked beside him. Was she… acting? “We’re so sorry! It was just - It’s quieter here and -!”

 

The man, unfamiliar to Frank (who knew most of the school’s staff) grunted, “Leave now and no one has to know.” That wasn’t right. He had to be the accomplice. Out of the corner of his eye, Nancy nervously rubbed at her back, keeping up the charade of submissive high schooler as she nodded to the ground.

 

The intruder held the door wide open, leading Nancy to grab Frank’s hand before dragging him out into the hallway. The office door slammed behind them immediately.

 

“Nancy! We needed tha-!”

 

“Unzip my dress,” she ordered, turning her back to him.

 

Had she and Ned moved this quickly?! They were still in the school. We’ve known each other awhile, but we only just - “Frank.”

 

He sighed. “Listen, Nan, we can’t let that man destroy the paper.”

 

She sighed. “Unzip my dress!”

 

The Hardy boy obeyed her order (of course his hands weren’t shaking don’t be ridiculous). Beneath the green fabric, he found a crumpled piece of paper. No way. Oh, Miss Drew, I could kiss you. He hadn't even seen her slip it from the desk before she'd jumped away from him. This would be the last time he ever doubted the resourcefulness of the girl-next-door - his focus had been dedicated to other things and, in any similar scenario, Frank couldn't see himself reacting as quickly as she had. He re-zipped the garment, pretending not to struggle at the top, and handed the paper back to its savior.

 

"How did you do that?" She was probably a goddess sent to Earth. Athena-incarnate. It would explain so much. Namely, her ability to regularly beat him at Scrabble, a skill no one else possessed (Not because she had a more extensive vocabulary than he; Detective Drew was a connoisseur of the tricky two-letter words that scored in the double digits).

 

Nancy gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Feminine wiles. Now let's go before bozo realizes we one-upped him."

 

The sleuth turned on her heel and marched back down the hall, Frank close at her side. He had a lot of questions. To start: Nancy Drew may not let a thing like social etiquette stop her in most situations, but what was her stance on, uh, smooching-under-the-Nedfluence?

 

As it turned out, Ned Nickerson would not be such a problem.