Joe Hardy woke to pain.
Which wasn’t new, but that didn’t change how much it sucked.
Oh, and then there was the hunger. The thirst. The stale sweaty-body smell, mixing with a smell he wasn’t going to comment on, because it wasn’t from him.
But yeah, waking up wasn’t fun.
He hadn’t dreamed about this. Actually, he’d dreamed about being stuck in a small room wrestling Chet Morton, and Chet had been sitting on his back and singing some ridiculous song about old men and old women. On the whole, he thought he’d rather wrestle with a slightly drunk Chet, than be stuck here in this unknown basement, tied up tighter than he’d ever been before.
Frank was still there, his head a couple inches from Joe’s and pointed in the opposite direction. Joe realized he could also smell his big brother’s hair, that weird shampoo he used. It smelled like peppermint and something else. But it was a Frank smell, and Joe was suddenly ridiculously glad for it.
Having his eyes open gave him a slightly different view. When he lifted his head off the cement floor, he saw there was a little bit of light around the window, so it had to be morning at least. He couldn’t quite hold back a groan, as a hunger pang suddenly cramped his stomach. Gosh, he was so hungry he could puke.
He swore a couple times under his breath, hoping Frank was still asleep.
“I heard that.”
Joe swore again.
“Feel any better now?”
Joe made a face, hoping Frank would feel it, even if he couldn’t see it. “Actually, no. I think I just used up my saliva reserves.”
“Yeah.” Frank was quiet for a minute. “It’s gonna be a bad day if we don’t get out of here.”
“Heck, yeah, I’m starving.” He started to roll over onto his front, so he could look into Frank’s face, but immediately had to clamp his teeth together so hard he thought he heard them creak.
All his muscles ached, and every inch of his body had to be bruised, because he hurt. He was so stiff from sleeping, it felt like trying to bend a block of wood. He suddenly realized that his knees had swollen, from the constant banging against the concrete as he’d struggled. Not to mention that his arms were attempting to wake up, and were giving sudden painful explosions of feeling.
“Know what I’d want for breakfast?” he ground out, dropping his forehead to the floor as he waited for his body to stop screaming at him. “A poppyseed bagel.”
“With lemon cream cheese,” Frank finished. He too gave a groan as he moved. “Don’t make me hungry, brother.”
The raw pain coursing under his skin brought a burning to Joe’s eyes, and he closed them against it, keeping his face to the floor. He was mortified by the memory of his breakdown last night; he had been exhausted and a little crazy and stupidly scared. He wasn’t usually like that!
“Okay, if we can’t get out of here on our own,” Frank said quietly, “how soon do you think we’ll be found?”
Joe tried to fight through the fog of the pain, and think.
If they couldn’t get out of there themselves… well, they had been there before. Not often, but before.
“Well, the professors would have missed us yesterday,” he mumbled, attempting to lift his head to look at Frank, but his back instantly protested. “And Dad was supposed to call this morning, with the court dates for the Dominates’ case. So, he’ll wonder where we are. But do you think he’ll worry?”
“Well, if he calls each of us twice at a time when we are normally supposed to be available, he’s allowed to call Krista to ask questions. And of course the first thing she’ll say is that we never came home last night.”
Krista was their landlady, a widowed mom with twin girls. She was cool. Yeah, she was probably worried about them. Maybe she was stress-baking; her best cinnamon rolls, or a fresh lemon meringue pie. Joe’s stomach gurgled loudly.
“I think if someone waved a piece of bread under my nose about now, I’d cry,” Frank muttered.
Joe licked his chapped lips. “My stomach hurts so bad I might puke.”
“I’m having trouble remembering not hurting.”
“I could use a bathroom right about now.”
“So,” Joe muttered. “Any more ideas for escaping?”
“Well,” Frank started. “Let’s see. Hands taped behind our backs, no fingers. Legs taped together all the way down to shoes, I think. Tied to the walls so we can’t reach our bonds with our teeth. The only thing we’ve gained is our mouths, and if no one came last night, I doubt screaming would help.”
“We can touch each other.”
That had sounded better in Joe’s head.
“Yeah.” Frank shifted, bumped his head gently against Joe’s. Silently, Joe leaned into the pressure.
They lay like that for a while, each busy with their own thoughts, yet steady in the presence of the other.
“If only I could get my pants undone.”
Frank laughed, and Joe wanted to slap him.
“I mean, because the rope is around the tape and between my legs, and the tape is on my jeans not my skin, if I could loosen my jeans, and kept pulling, maybe that would make the tape pull down with the jeans. The tape is currently only partway down my calves, so if I could get it down to my ankles that could give us… another foot? At least?”
“Too bad you insist on wearing skinny jeans, you dandy,” Frank teased.
“Give us a week or two here, and I’ll slip right out of them,” Joe snapped back.
“Yeah, as a skeleton. We’ll die in three days without water.”
“Aren’t you cheerful?!”
Another silence fell. Joe didn’t want to say anything, but he was getting thirstier by the minute. It was getting harder to talk, his mouth drier, his tongue more difficult to move. And he could feel a newer heavy tiredness creeping into his limbs.
“Well,” Frank murmured slowly. “I suppose if you’re gonna try to get your pants off, I should try to get my shirt off. The tape is over the sleeves.”
Joe tried to laugh.
“Hey,” Frank suddenly hissed. “Listen.”
Joe closed his eyes, and tried to hear past the pain.
Voices. Faint, but getting louder. Footsteps upstairs! Was this it? Were they finally going to see their captors? But if they did show their faces, that could only mean they were planning on killing the boys.
“Are they here for us?”
“Can’t think what else,” Frank whispered. “Unless there’s some kind of loot stashed upstairs.”
The voices were at the top of the stairs now, and then came the clunk of a bolt being yanked back. Joe sucked in a quick breath, and pressed the side of his head against Frank’s, belatedly trying to put together a look of defiance.
And then the door at the top of the stairs was thrown open, and light flooded the room, making both boys snap their eyes shut. Noise, voices jabbering—a veritable storm of people and movement.
“I told you they’d be fine,” snapped someone bending over Joe, and Joe slowly cracked his eyes open, needing time to adjust to the brightness.
“Yeah, well, you still need to pay up, because you also said they’d escape.”
“Oh, shut up,” growled a girl. “You were the one who was supposed to check back on them, and then got drunk and forgot.”
“Alright, kids,” said another. “Let’s get you untied to start with.”
“What?” Joe croaked, sounding absolutely brainless. He felt brainless too. What were any of these people talking about? None of them made sense.
“Oh, hey, looks like this one made some headway.” Hands tugging at the rope and tape on his legs. “Give me a knife.”
Joe squinted up at the person working over Frank’s arm. “Don’t hurt him,” he gasped out. “If you hurt him, I swear–”
“Chill, bambino,” said the big guy with long hair and a baggy sweatshirt. “I’m not hurting him.”
“We’re letting you go, morons,” sneered the girl.
But… that sweatshirt. “Where’d you get that shirt?”
“This?” The guy paused, looked down at the John Jay name across the front. “Same place you got yours, bambino.”
“Who are you?” Frank croaked, but he ended with a gasp, and only the sound of tape being ripped away, kept Joe from yelling at whoever had done it.
“That’s none of your business,” someone said firmly.
Joe coughed on a laugh. “That won’t be hard to figure out,” he whispered. “We do all go to a school for detectives.”
They kept calling it a joke.
A hazing prank on a couple of freshmen, ‘with love from the grad-class’, as Joe sarcastically put it.
“You’re the Hardy boys,” said Barclay, a guy with dark skin and wearing a loud orange plaid shirt. He looked down at his feet. “We wanted to see if you could get out of it.”
Frank and Joe were now seated on the stairs, water bottles and crackers in hand.
“They all said you couldn’t,” he went on. “I bet a hundred bucks you could.”
Frank smiled, though not with his usual warmth. “Thanks for the support. But it was still a stupid thing to do. Hazing is illegal. So is kidnapping. We could press charges if we wanted to. And another couple of days and you would have been pulling our bodies out. You would all be getting called up for murder.”
Dingo, the big dude with the long hair looked frightfully embarrassed. “Yeah, we know. And we’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell the professors about it.”
Joe started to laugh, and choked on his water. “Seriously?” he spluttered at last. “You realize who our professors are, right? Deanne probably knew it was you this whole time. We won’t have to say a word.”
The girl looked at them coldly. “And some of us know a thing or two about covering our tracks too.”
“You’d make a good criminal,” Frank said quietly. “Maybe you should watch that.”
The house, it seemed, belonged to Dingo’s grandparents, but they were travelling, and it sat empty. Since it was a fully detached home with a big yard, the gang had decided it was the perfect dumping place for a few prisoners.
Joe was pretty angry and disgusted with how they had been treated, but once his mouth started to feel more normal, and he had some food in his stomach, the ire faded a little.
“I never thought I would be so happy to taste Cheez-Its,” Frank mumbled, just as Joe leaned over to whisper in his ear, “I mean, it was actually a perfectly executed kidnapping.”
“You know, I almost think I’d take starvation over public humiliation,” Frank whispered back.
“Almost,” Joe muttered.
With food in his stomach, and water in his system, Joe was somehow energized and exhausted at the same time. He still hurt all over, and one knee was very tender. “Might have been twisted,” Frank said, examining it with shaky hands.
“Gosh, I’d give hard cash for a shower right now,” Joe sighed. He slumped over against Frank, felt his big brother’s arm go around his shoulders. Frank was warm and solid, if smelly, and Joe suddenly found himself fighting back tears.
They were okay. They were safe. They were free. Frank could hug him again. He could hug Frank again.
“Yeah, we should get all those bruises attended to. Let’s get home, brother,” Frank sighed.
Barclay begged to be allowed to give them a ride to their apartment, and the boys quickly agreed. In their current state, public transportation, or even a taxi, would just garner unneeded attention.
Finally, finally, safely back in their basement, Joe waved Frank toward the bathroom, as he made a beeline for the kitchen. “You get cleaned up,” he called over his shoulder. “I don’t feel like a piece of wood anymore, so I’m gonna get that bagel.”
“And call Dad.” Frank was rummaging in their room for clean clothes. “Since they were so kind to return our phones.”
When he finally took a mouthful of that bagel and lemon cream cheese though, Joe had to stand quite still and close his eyes for a bit, just savouring the flavours that danced across his tongue.
“Human again,” he muttered, shambling back out to the living room where Frank had dumped the bag of their effects on the coffee table.
Phones. Yeesh, it was well after noon. How much school had they missed? Yes, a total of… 12 missed calls between them. Oh, and a note from Krista on the table, telling them their dad was wondering where they were and to call him when they got home. Just like a mom, Joe thought.
He dialled Fenton Hardy’s number with one hand. His dad picked up on the first ring.
Oh, he’d grabbed Frank’s phone. “No, it’s Joe. Frank’s in the shower, and boy, do I need one.”
A moment of silence. Joe could practically hear the gears turning in the other man’s head. “You’re alright then? Both safe?”
“Yeah. Yeah. You didn’t tell Mom?”
“No, but I was almost there. What happened?”
“No, we didn’t go out partying and get drunk.” Joe rolled his eyes to the ceiling as he popped the last small bite of bagel in his mouth. “Just got a little tied up for a while.”
“You don’t sound too worried.”
“Someone’s idea of a joke.” He could figure it out.
“You mean hazing?” Fenton Hardy sounded genuinely alarmed. “That’s illegal.”
“Yeah, we told them that. Don’t worry, I’ll bet Professor Deanne has them kicked out by tonight.”
“How much did you boys get hurt?”
Joe shrugged, winced. “Honestly, Dad?” He hesitated for a good half-minute, torn, then glanced toward the sound of the shower running, smiled. “It’s nothing we can’t handle.”
This time the silence was longer and thoughtful.
“Guess I have to let you grow up sometime.”
Joe snorted. “Some people probably think we’re too grown up.”
Now his dad chuckled. “Like your poor mother. Make sure you call her today, okay?”
“Will do. I need to go, probably eat the whole fridge. Though I should save something for Frank.”
“Okay. Call me if you need anything. Love you, son.”
Joe smiled again. “Love you too, Dad.”
Oh, he was a mess. He’d ignored the mirror on his way into the shower, but now, as he wrapped a towel somewhat gingerly around his waist, he had to stop and stare.
Great purple blotches across his chest and upper arms, every one of them tender and warm to the touch. His legs looked even worse, his knees completely coloured over.
He sighed, ran a hand through his blond hair. The hot shower had definitely helped. Now he just wanted to collapse somewhere, and wake up when nothing hurt anymore.
Frank came in, and immediately went still, staring. Joe didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused at the pucker between his big brother’s eyebrows.
“Chill,” he muttered, making a beeline for the counter where he’d left the liniment. “And help me with this.”
As they had tended to Frank’s aches and pains earlier, they did so now with Joe’s in silence, thinking, except for the occasional hiss of pain.
Joe didn’t know if it was worse or better that their captors had been fellow students, with no real intent to harm. Hazing like that was stupid, and deserved to be illegal. But he maybe kinda understood why they had done it. It was sort of like hanging Chet’s favourite leather jacket at the top of a tree and making him climb up and get it. Joe had done that.
“Maybe we should tell before we’re asked,” Frank muttered, breaking Joe’s train of thought.
“Why?” Joe was sitting on the toilet, bent over to rub the liniment into his legs, while Frank massaged his shoulders. Man, did that feel good.
“To make sure all of them get caught.”
“What, you don’t trust the one-time Head Detective of the NYPD and Dad’s favourite partner?”
“I just want to be sure,” Frank muttered.
Joe paused, then slowly straightened, turning to look up at his big brother. “You’re still mad.”
Frank’s dark eyes met his, then flicked away. “Sure I am. You could have died.”
“We. We could have died.” Joe sighed, reached to poke Frank in the side. “It’s not just me, idiot. It’s not just you either. It’s us. It’s always us.”
Frank sighed. “Yeah, I know. But that doesn’t change–”
“–the fact that I’m your little brother,” Joe chorused with him, making Frank end with a laugh, and a little colour in his cheeks. “Would you shut up about that already?”
“Never, Joseph Hardy.”
“Ugh.” Joe grabbed the closest thing to hand—his clean underwear—and threw them in his brother’s face.
Later—a fair bit later, after the minimum of phone calls, and a unanimous decision to return to school full bore the next day, when they were properly rested. Later, shortly after polishing off a homemade pizza from Krista, they fell asleep on the couch, Joe curled safely into Frank’s side.
He half woke when Frank shook him, and he stumbled after his brother to the bedroom.
“Do you wanna push the beds together?” Frank mumbled.
Joe blinked at him stupidly, before he nodded, and then immediately regretted it. But not enough to take it back.
Tomorrow night he would sleep in his own bed like normal, and that would be fine. Tonight, it was just nice to be able to touch his brother, to throw an arm across Frank’s stomach and feel him breathing. To know that no stupid duct tape or ropes were holding them apart.
This time when the lights went out, Joe wasn’t cold or hungry or thirsty. He was definitely still sore, but nothing time couldn’t heal. But most importantly, he was warm and safe, and he was beside his brother.