The Road Home is Often Longest
by Pretty Pretty

Daddy."

Ben held perfectly still as Caroline leaned closer to his ear and whispered.

"Daddy, you asleep?"

She took her small three-year-old finger and poked the side of his cheek. Ben was enjoying a Sunday afternoon nap on the couch, a luxury these days. Caroline poked his cheek once again and sighed in frustration when it produced no response.

"Da-addy."

Deciding her previous tactics werenít enough, Caroline grabbed the farthest belt loop she could reach and hoisted herself up on her daddyís stomach. Planting both feet on either side of Benís sleeping form she stood over him and began patting him on the head.

"Daddy, Momma wants you. You gotta get up."

Allowing a small smile to flash across his lips, Ben quickly grabbed Caroline by the waist and hoisted her in the air.

"Whoís that disturbing my sleep?!" Twisting from side to side, Caroline giggled out her answer.

"I did! Momma wants you. She sent me to comed get you."

"She did? Well letís go see what Mommy wants." Ben sat Carolina on her feet and stood up from the couch. He planted one foot forward and smiled at Caroline. She wrapped her legs around his ankle and sat on his foot.

"You ready, Bug?"

"I ready, go!" Ben dramatically swept his leg in the air and took a giant step across the living room floor with Caroline latched firmly to his leg.

"Where is your Momma?"

"In da office. Sheís workiní on a law."

"I see." The two of them took a few circles around the living room before heading down the hall to the office.

"You rang?" Sara looked up from her laptop and smiled. Ben grinned at the sight of Sara with a pencil in her mouth, her hair pulled up in a makeshift ponytail and held in place with two more pencils and a pencil tucked behind her ear for good measure.

"Hey, there? You werenít sleeping were you? I told Bug not to wake you up if you were sleeping."

"Iím not sleeping now."

"Doodlebug, what did I tell you?"

"I asked if he was sleepiní."

"Uh-huh. Well, now that youíre here. Can you get that off the top shelf for me."

"Sure, this one? Youíve been at this all day. What are you working on?"

"Iím writing a contract for Daddy. Heís acquiring the land adjacent to his from Mr. MacElroy. Itís time consuming." Ben extended to the top shelf and pulled the book Sara wanted. Smiling, he handed her the book.

"Thanks, Benny."

Silence hung in the air. Neither moved as their eyes locked and a whirlwind of emotions swirled inside them. Caroline looked from one parent to another and could tell that this was not the time to speak. Ben realized he was holding his breath. He blinked and released Sara from his gaze. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as he quietly spoke.

"Why did you call me that?"

Sara could only whisper. "I donít know. I donít know."

~~~

Sara and Ben each held Caroline's hand as they walked down Madison Street.
The three-year-old bounced and hopped along between them singing to herself
and anyone who would listen. They all stopped to look in the toy store
window at the large display of Legoís. Before Sara could stop her, Caroline
took off at a run down the street and ran up to three men wearing long black
coats.

Caroline reached up, took the tall man's hand and smiled brightly up at
him.
"I knows you." Sara and Ben sprinted after Caroline. It always amazed Ben how much distance a three-year-old could cover in a matter of seconds.

"You my Unca Ray. I's gots two Unca Rays. Unca Rah and you!"

The man stared down into familiar blue eyes. He was lost in their shape and color
for a split second and then was jolted back to reality. He tried to cover
his shock by brushing the little one off.
"Don'tcha have a mom or something, kid?"
"Hey, you know this kid or somethin'?" The man standing next to him nudged
him in the side as he questioned him.
"Nah, must be lost or something."

Caroline pulled on his hand for him to kneel down to her level.
"I's seened your picture. My mommy prays to Jesus for you, Unca Ray." Those
clear blue eyes pierced through his heart like a thousand swords. He looked
from side to side and then spotted two figures running toward them. His eyes
met the same blue eyes of the child's in front of him.

Ben stopped in his tracks and grabbed Sara by the arm. She turned and glared
at him for stopping her.
"What!?"
"Oh my God." Ben barely whispered the words, but Sara felt as if they had
been shouted at her. She turned to see the face she had prayed for every
night for almost four years.
"Ray."
"Sara he's with someoneÖ.." Benís thought was cut off by Saraís panicked voice.
"Oh my God, Caroline." Ben tightened his grip on her hand.
"Follow my lead."

Ben started running toward the men again with Sara close
behind. As he approached, he saw the panicked look in Ray's eyes.
"Caroline, you know you're not supposed to run off! You could have been
hurt. You've worried your mother and me very much." Ben's eyes met Ray's and
the two of them passed a look that only they could understand.
"I's sorry." Caroline stared at the ground and pouted while Ben picked her
up. Sara stood behind Ben and tried to school her features. She avoided
Ray's gaze for fear she would burst into tears and put his life in danger.
Ben handed Caroline to Sara and turned to face Ray and the two gentlemen
standing by his side.
"Thank you kindly for entertaining our daughter. She's very friendly. She's like her mother." Ben extended his hand to the
other two gentlemen first and then offered his hand to Ray. Ray hoped the
others wouldn't notice the look in his eyes when he took his best friends
hand for the first time in four years.
"It's nothing. You have a beautiful little girl."
"Thank you kindly. We must be going now. Her Grandmother is expecting us for
dinner shortly." Ray felt a pain shoot across his stomach. Ben had told him his family was
okay. Caroline squirmed in Sara's grasp and waved happily as they walked
away from the three men on the street. Sara felt the tears streaming down
her face and tried not to faint as she held Caroline. Ben wiped away his own
tears as the three of them returned home.

~~~

"Whatís he doing here?!" Sara had put Caroline down for a nap. She was trying not to let her emotions overtake her. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs; instead she could only talk in forced whispers. Ben sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. He knew Sara didnít want an answer to her question, so he just sat and allowed the tears to flow freely down his cheeks.

"What should we do Ben?" Sara knelt down in front of Ben and grabbed his hands.

"IÖdonítÖwe canít do anything." Benís mind was a swirl of emotion and thoughts. He felt dizzy from the weight of them all. He tried to calm himself and focus, but the shock of seeing the best friend he had ever had left him shaken.

"Should we tell Ma?"

"No!" Ben didnít mean to raise his voice. Sara knew that his sharp tone wasnít directed at her.

"She has a right to know, Ben. Heís her son."

"I know, but it may cause more harm than good."

Dief lumbered into the room and sat on the floor next to Sara. He knew that his companion needed him more than the small one. Ben instinctively reached out for Diefís ears and began to rub his hand along the warm fur.

"Why is he here in Chicago? Do you think his assignments over?"

"It didnít seem that way. He must be here for a reason. Maybe Welsh can tell us something in the morning. Iím sure the FBI has kept him abreast of the situation."

"I hope so."

~~~~

Ray Vecchio stood on the balcony of his hotel suite and looked out over the city. It was much to cold to be outside, but he didnít care. He was numb, physically and emotionally. The last three years had been torment. He barely knew the man he used to be. He had disconnected himself so completely from that life that he wondered if it really existed at all. Until today. A tear escaped his eye and landed on the back of his hand as he leaned against the railing. Sal and Gino had gone to their hotel room to play a little poker, which afforded Ray some much-needed privacy. It took everything he had to maintain his composure after seeing Fraser and Sara. Sara couldnít even look at him. He couldnít blame her. The way he just left her like that, he couldnít blame her for hating him.

* My God, how am I going to get through this? Why did I have to come here? Why did the meeting with the families have to be here? I donít know if I can keep this up any longer. But, what will I have if I donít? Another man has taken over my life and my best friend. I donít even know who Ray Vecchio is anymore. Iím Armando Langoustini. Jesus! What am I saying?! Iím not! Iím not! Iím Ray! Ray Vecchio! * With a quick turn on his heels, Ray left the balcony and returned to the warmth of the hotel. He grabbed his coat and walked quietly down the hall. Mindful of ever-present eyes, he checked behind him to see if anyone saw him leave.

~~

Sara and Ben sat in silence on the end of the bed. Neither spoke or moved. Each took comfort in the otherís presence. Dinner had been a chore to get through at the Vecchio house. The only saving grace was Caroline. She kept everyone occupied with her constant talking or singing. Ben and Sara were unusually quiet during dinner. Rosa just dismissed it as a possible lovers spat or lack of sleep. Ben and Sara were thankful to be home and able to remove the schooled expressions from their faces. Caroline was tucked safely in her Ďbig girlí bed and Dief was asleep at her feet.

Sara nearly jumped off the bed when the doorbell rang.

"Who could that be? Itís nearly eleven." Ben walked quickly to the front door as Sara followed closely behind. He wondered why the doorman hadnít buzzed for them. Ben cocked his head to the side and looked at Dief who was now waiting by the front door wagging his tail.

Ben swung the door open and stood in shock for a moment. Green eyes met blue as the two men stared at faces each had missed so much.

"Benny." Fraser had longed to hear that name for three long years. At the sound of it, he threw his arms around Ray and pulled him into a strong embrace.

"Ray. Ray." Ben repeated his name; still trying to figure out if he was real. Ray took a deep breath and breathed in the scent of his best friend. He still smelled like snow. Ray closed his eyes as he tightened his grip on Benís broad shoulders. It had been so long. Too long since the two of them had been together. Ben pulled away and held Ray by his shoulders.

"Ray."

"Yeah, Itís me Benny." Looking past Ben, Rayís eyes met Saraís. Ray swallowed the emotion that was rising in his throat. He knew Fraser would understand. He knew Fraser would forgive him for leaving the way he did. It was his duty. Fraser would always understand duty. But, SaraÖ..how could Sara ever forgive him? He took a tentative step forward hoping she wouldnít back away. Her eyes glistened with tears as Sara stared at the face of the man she had grown to love like a brother. Ray held out his hand and whispered her name.

"Sara." The sound of her name sent her emotions raging. She lunged at Ray and held him tightly. He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off her feet. She tucked her head into the side of his neck and sobbed. No longer capable of hiding his emotions, Ray wept. The two of them clung to one another and cried for nearly fifteen minutes before Ray gently stood Sara back on her feet.

"Iím so sorry." Ray tucked his head and wiped the tears from his cheeks.

"Youíre okay. Youíve come backÖÖ.Weíve been so worriedÖÖOh, Ray, we love youÖ..we missed you so much."

"You donít hate me?"

Ben searched Rayís face. "Why would we hate you?"

"IÖ..I just left. I didnít even get to say goodbye."

"But, you had to, Ray."

"Iíve missed you so much." Sara was stilling holding Rayís hand when she pulled him into another hug.

"What are you doing here?" Rayís face grew grim at her question. He knew he wasnít even supposed to be there.

"Ray? Youíre still undercover arenít you?"

"Yeah, Benny. Iím still Armando Langoustini."

"Oh dear."

"What?" Sara looked at Ben in confusion.

"Ray, you shouldnít be here. What ifÖÖ"

"I know, Frase. I know. But, I had to come. I had to."

"What if you were followed?"

"I made sure I wasnít."

"This is too dangerous Ray. You could be in serious danger if anyone finds out you came here." Ray sat on the couch with his head in his hands.

"I know. ButÖ..but, I donít care anymore." Ben looked at the man before him. This was not the same Ray Vecchio that had left three years before. This man was burned out and eaten up inside. Haunted eyes looked to Ben for support.

"Iím here for a meeting. The Iguana family is meeting with the Falconeís. The two families have been funneling money out of Las Vegas and into Chicago for the last three years."

"Are you close to having the evidence you need?"

"Iíve had enough evidence for months, but the Feds want to keep me in until they can bring down the Chicago outfit as well."

"Thatís crazy!" Sara sat next to Ray and held onto his arm as he spoke.

"Yeah, well, thatís the FBI."

"Whenís the meeting?"

"Two days from now. Thatís when they are supposed to make the bust."

"What about you?"

"Iíll wait until I hear the word and then start busting mobsters."

"I mean after the arrests?"

"Well, if we canít convict, Iíll go into the witness protection program."

"No, you canít!"

"Sara, I wonít have a whole lotta choices."

"But, butÖÖ" Sara began to cry again. Ray draped his arm around her shoulders and gave Ben a sorrowful look.

"Iíll talk to Welsh in the morning. Maybe there is something we can help with. Ray and I will help you in any way we can." The sound of his name being used to refer to another man made his stomach wrench. This was hard. Too hard. He wished it would all just go away.

"Thanks Benny."

~~~~~

Sal gathered his winnings from the table and stumbled down the hall toward his hotel room. He decided he better check in with Armando before hitting the hay. After the fourth knock, Sal began to worry about why he couldnít get an answer at the door. Grabbing a passing chambermaid, her Ďrequestedí the use of her key so he could investigate. Opening the door, he found the hotel empty and the bed not slept in. He would have to bring this up to Armando in the morning. Where could he be at such a late hour?

~~

Sara slept with her head resting near where Ray sat in the corner of the sofa. He had his arm resting on her shoulder as he and Ben talked. He had missed his friend so much. Seeing him again, talking to him again made him realize how much he loved Ben as a friend. He smiled slightly as Ben talked. Ben paused and looked at Ray.

"Why are you smiling?"

"Itís been a long time since Iíve heard one of your stories. I didnít realize how much I missed it."

"We missed you. I have to admit that neither of us handled your leaving very well."

"I know."

"You know?"

"I made a friend at the Bureau and they would slip me some information. They told me that Sara was having a difficult time adjusting to Kowalski."

"It was hard for her to open up. She felt like she was betraying you. We both did." Ray sighed and brushed Saraís hair from her face with his finger.

"I missed you two so much. I donít even know your daughter." Ben smiled at the mention of Caroline.

"But she knows you."

"How did she do that today? It scared the crap out of me."

"Sara and I have always told her about her Uncle Ray. Sheís been told you were working for the police and that you would come to see her one day."

"She seems like a smart kid."

"She takes after her mother. Would you like to see her? I need to check on her."

"Sure." Ray stood up gently so he wouldnít disturb Sara. He followed Ben into Carolineís room and stood back while Ben pulled the blanket up to her chest and kissed her on the head. Dief raised his head and lobbed his tongue out of the side of his mouth as Ray took a step forward. In a soft whisper, Ray spoke to Dief as he scratched his ears.

"Hey boy. I even missed you, you big donut snatcher. Have you been taking care of this little angel?"

Dief whined his reply and moved to snuggle in closer to the smallest member of his pack. He was happy to see that all of his family members were together again.

"Sheís beautiful."

"I know. I never thought things would be like this." Ray nodded and stood over Caroline.

"You have a beautiful family." Ray turned to face Ben. Ben patted Ray on the shoulder and nodded.

"And now my family is all together again." Ray felt the lump in his throat grow larger as he looked at the man he considered his brother.

"Did you see Ma tonight?"

"Yes, Ray. We didnít tell her. I didnít think it was best."

"Is she okay?"

"They miss you. Franny and John are engaged. I think the only reason she hasnít married him yet is because sheís waiting on her real brother to give her away."

"God I miss Franny. Iíd give anything to see that annoying face."

"It will be good to have you back Ray."

"Yeah, but what will I do?" Ray had finally uttered the question that had been haunting the two of them. * What will happen to Ray Kowalski? Has he taken my place completely? *

"Weíll worry about that when the time comes. What are we going to do about getting you back to your hotel?"

"Iíll just walk in like I walked out. It shouldnít be a big deal." Ray hoped it wasnít going to be a big deal. Sometimes Sal could be too nosy for his own good.

~~

Depression smothered him as he walked through the lobby of his hotel. Ray thought that seeing Ben and Sara would make everything better. It only made things worse. Now the feelings of loneliness and fear were escalated by seeing the friends he loved so much. He had missed out on so much. Caroline was a stranger to him. Ben and Sara had gone on with their lives without him. Another man had taken over everything he had. How could things ever be the way they were? How could he ever return to the life he had?

Ray stepped into the elevator and sighed heavily as the doors moved shut. The floors passed as Ray shook his head in thought. Tears began to glisten in his eyes as the lift reached his floor. He walked down the long hallway and wondered, ĎHow did it all get like this?í

It was only supposed to be a six-month operation. Six months. How could the FBI know that the Iguana family was going through a major restructuring of power? Ray had found himself in a full scale Mob sweep. Hits were being made. People disappeared. The hierarchy of the family changed from one week to the next. Fortunately, this allowed Ray to slip seamlessly into the life of Armando LíAngoustini. With the focus on the higher levels of the family, few paid much attention to the dealings of The Bookman. The FBI now had the same game but with different players. Six more months, thatís all they needed. Just six more months to make a case against this newly formed Iguana crime family. Ray tried to keep a low profile and do as he was told. He wasnít sure when his life had slipped away from him, but now he felt as if it were gone. The case had started to come together when a new team came in to play the game. The Falconeís from Chicago. Somehow the two families were linked and the FBI wanted to know how. The money from the Casino operations and the drugs the Iguana family sold to the street level dealers was somehow filtering into the corruption in Chicago. Just another few months. Thatís all they needed to crack this whole operation wide open. A few more months turned into two years. And it was all coming to a head on Friday, two days from now. The meeting between the families was taking place on Friday. Armando was the Bookman. He supplied all the numbers for the transactions between the two families. He would make his appearance at the meeting. Wait on all the fireworks to start and then be hauled away with the FBI. That would be the end of it. He would have his life back. *But what kinda life will I have?* Ray unlocked his door and slipped into the darkness of his hotel room. Sal lightly closed his door and wondered where Armando had gone at such a late hour and why he looked so upset. He would have to watch his boss a little more closely from now on.

~~

"UNCA RAH!" Caroline greeted Ray Vecchio Kowalski at the door by leaping from her perch on the chair in the foyer and into his arms.

"Heya Bug! Whatís my favorite Doodlebug been up to today?"

"I went to da daycare today." Ben looked up from his task of folding clothes and corrected Carolineís three-year-old speech pattern.

"THE daycare, Bug. ĎTHEí."

"Datís what I said."

"Yeah, thatís what she said." Ben shook his head and sighed as he placed a pair of jeans on the end of the couch.

"We played a game and I was the leader and Iís got to pick da uver kids an we played duck-duck-goose and I ran and Bobby Michael Tanner runned after me an he tried to git me an I runned fast and got back in my spot." Ray held Caroline and listened to her story. He shook his head in mock disbelief at how she could speak without actually breathing.

"You had a good time?"

"Uh-huh."

Ben cocked an eyebrow and gave his daughter a correcting look.

"Caroline."

"Yessir."

"Thatís better. Why donít you go get that new book we bought for you today?"

"Okay!" Twisting to be let down, Caroline ran full force to her room. Ray chuckled as he sat on the arm of the couch.

"Whereís Sara?"

"Sheís got a headache."

"She okay?"

"Well, we had an interesting night."

"You two didnít have a fight or anything didcha?"

"Rayís in town." Ray cocked his head and stared at the words that hung in the air before his face.

"Ray?"

"Ray."

"Ray."

"Yes."

"I see." Ray looked at the expression on his friendís face and tried to read his emotions. In the four years he had known Ben, the two of them have grown extremely close. Fraser was like a brother to him. More than a brother in his opinion considering the lousy relationship he had with his own brother. But, the emotion was gone, buried beneath years of schooled features and denial.

"Heís here as part of his assignment."

"Whatís going on?" Before Ben could answer, Caroline came bursting in the room. She ran full force over to Ray and pounced into his arms.

"Here it is! This isa da book Daddy bought me. Itís gots Blue in it. See, there he is. Datís Blueís Clues."

"Wow! Look at that. Thatís a really neat lookiní book. Can you read it to me?"

"No. Buts you can reads it to me." Giggling, Caroline thrust the book at Ray and climbed up on the couch beside him. Ray offered Ben a look that conveyed an enormous amount of emotion. Ben looked away and continued folding clothes.

~~~~

Sara sat on the edge of the bed and sobbed. She had finally gotten her Ray back. Or had she? He wasnít completely theirs again. He was still undercover and in danger. The emotions she was feeling threatened to overwhelm her. She knew that she couldnít let Caroline see her this upset. She also knew Ben was closing in on himself. He tried not to show her his emotions but she saw them nonetheless. Ben could hide things from other people, but not Sara. Not any more.

She would have to get him to open up. She knew that seeing Ray had ripped his heart out. She knew that once Ray was back with them that something would happen between them and Ray Kowalski. What would happen to Ray? Would he be given another assignment at another precinct? What would he do? Would he go back to Arizona with his parents? She knew that this was only the beginning of some very stressful times.

~~~

Welsh looked out his office window and cringed at the sight of the two men walking toward his office. He knew the look on the Mountieís face and he knew this wouldnít be a pleasant conversation.

He acknowledged the knock on his door and prepared himself for another long drawn out conversation. Thatís the only kind of conversations you could have with the Mountie. He was glad he had eaten a big breakfast.

"What can I do for you Constable? The Detective here not giving you enough to do around the streets of our fair city?" Instead of the usual ĎNo, sirí and then on into his normal ramblings, Ben leaned across the edge of Welshís desk and addressed him with a seriousness that caught Harding off guard.

"Rayís here. Not this Ray, but the real Ray. Heís in Chicago with the Iguana crime family. What do you know about it and how can we help Ray?" Welsh looked from Kowalski to the Mountie as he tried to gather his thoughts and process the question that had been asked of him.

"Youíve seen him?"

"Yes sir."

"When?"

"Last night."
"Where?"

"On Mayline Avenue in front of Grandma Charlotteís Donut Shop and then last night at my apartment." Ray thought he actually heard a vein pop in Welshís neck. Welsh stood up and ran a hand over the back of his neck as he started to pace.

"What do you mean at your apartment?! What the hell is he doing at your apartment? He could jeopardize the entire operation as well as his own safety!"

"Iím well aware of that sir."

"He only has two more daysÖ.." Welsh knew that he had made a grave mistake once the words slipped out of his mouth. Ben took a step toward him.

"You knew he was here."

"Yes. The Feds called me three days ago. You werenít supposed to know."

"Why?" Ray say the clench of Benís jaw as he spoke. He knew that Fraser was angry.

"Think about it Constable. Heís been undercover for the last three and a half years. Heís on the last three days of that assignment. Itís taking place in his own hometown and the chances of him being in grave danger are pretty high. The last thing the Feds need is something stirring up the mix."

"Iím sorry." Ben cocked his head in confusion.

"Constable, the Feds are painfully aware of your history with Detective Vecchio. They didnít want you involved in anyway with their case."

"Iím sorry, but it seems to be too late for that."

"Why do you say that?"

"Now that I am aware that Ray is in town and in possible danger, it my duty to assure his safety and see that he returns safely to his family."

"Dammit, Red! This isnít something you need to be poking around in. If Ray sparks the least bit of suspicion, heís dead."

"Iím well aware of the danger, sir. But Ray is my friend and I will be there to help him." Ben looked from Welsh to Ray with pleading eyes. He knew this was hard on him, he knew the uncertainty that Ray was feeling, but he also knew that this was more important than that at the moment. Ray blinked and then ran his hand through his hair.

"Canít we just keep an eye out for things, you know, kinda like being in the right place at the right time?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Vecchio told Fraser where the meeting was being held. So if we just happen to be in the area while the bust goes down, we can offer our assistance."

"Why does everything have to be so hard with you?" Ben started to answer when Welsh silenced him with a look. He returned to his seat and rested his forehead in his hands.

"You watch him. Make sure heís safe when the fireworks start. Donít you two go sticking your noses in the way, you got me? Donít let this turn into a three-ring circus. Do you understand?"

"Yes Leftenant. Thank you."

"And Fraser, donít make anymore contact with Vecchio."

"Yes, sir."

"And Fraser, make sure our boy gets home."

"Understood."

Ben and Ray turned on their heels and quickly left Welshís office. They walked quickly through the bullpen and out to the parking lot. Neither noticed the concerned look on Francescaís face as they left the building.

~~~

Fraser looked over at Ray as he drove his prized GTO through the streets of Chicago. Something was wrong. He could tell by the way Rayís shoulders slumped and the beaten look on his face. He didnít have to ask what was wrong, he knew. He just had to figure out how to approach the subject. * How am I going to get Ray to open up to me? How am I going to make him understand? I know! *

"Ray, Sara and I would like you to come over for dinner tonight."

"Uh, I was going toÖ.uh, goÖ.uh, go to the hospital to see Nat."

"Sara will be extremely disappointed." Ben gave his best effort in providing Ray with his Big-eyed-Mountie look.

"Really?"

"Of course. Caroline wants to see her uncle Rah as well."

"Uncle Rah." Ray repeated the name Caroline insisted on calling him as if he would never hear it again. Ben could see the sadness in his eyes as he said them.

"Shall I call her and let her know youíve accepted?"

Ray sighed and rubbed his hand through his hair. "Sure, go ahead." Ben grabbed the cell phone from the dash and dialed home. Sara answered the phone. Ben cleared his throat and hoped his wife would understand his signals.

"Hi, sweetheart, Ray has accepted our invitation to dinner." Ben looked over at Ray and hoped he couldnít hear Saraís end of the conversation. "Huh? Ray? Ben, what are you talking about? Which Ray?"

"Thatís right, tell Bug that Uncle Rah will read her a bedtime story tonight."

"Whatís wrong? Heís there with you isnít he? Itís Ray. Heís upset that Rayís back. Oh dear. Iíll fry some chicken."

"Sounds good. See you soon. I love you."

"I love you too. Get him here and Iíll talk to him."

"Thank you kindly."

"Yeah, itís going to be a long night."

"She says she canít wait. Sheís frying a chicken."

"Sounds good." Ray wasnít really paying attention to anything Ben had said, he just knew the Mountie had looked his way.

 

~~~~~~~~

Ben and Ray entered the apartment and started walking into the kitchen. They were met by a very excited Caroline covered in a large green blanket.

"Rrrraaarrrr!"

"Hey, Bug, what are you supposed to be?"

"Iím a dinosaur, daddy."

"You are? What kind of dinosaur are you?"

"A big one."

"I see. Whereís mommy?"

"Sheís in the kitchen." Before Ben and Ray could walk into the kitchen, Dief exited Carolineís room covered in a blue throw blanket. Ben stooped and looked down at his companion.

"Are you a dinosaur too?"

"Errrrf."

"What did he say?"

"He said heís a dolphin actually."

"Kids gonna wear that poor wolf out."

The two of them laughed comfortably and went into the kitchen. Sara was stirring the mash potatoes in a large pot while Ben kissed her on the cheek.

"Hey, I hope youíre hungry."

"Starved."

"Good, could you set the table and get Bug ready to eat?"

"Iíll get Caroline, Sara."

"Thanks Ray." Ray left the room and Ben and Sara started to talk in low whispers about their friend.

"Whatís wrong?"

"I think heís concerned about where he stands in our life."

"After we eat, Iíll put Caroline down and weíll have a long talk with him."

"I knew you would know what to do." Ben took four plates from the cabinet and began setting the table. Ray had Caroline perched on his shoulders as the two of them entered the kitchen again.

"Look daddy! I high!"

"I see that. You better be careful up there. Uncle Rahís hair might put your eye out."

"Oh, thatís funny. A funny Mountie, thatís just what the world needs." Ray removed Caroline from her perch and placed her in her booster seat at the table.

"Unca Rah, will you sit ba-side me?"

"Sure I will."

"Rah, do you want some corn?" Ray grinned at Sara as she handed him a large serving bowl.

"Bug is the only one allowed to call me that. Why she even insists on calling me that is beyond me."

"Datís yer name." Caroline picked the kernels of corn from her plate and ate them one at a time.

"Caroline, donít talk with your mouth full. Sheís right though. Itís your own fault. You were the one that insisted that she learn your name. Youíre the one that sounded it out every time you got near her. Rah-Rah-Rah-Ray."

"Yeah, I know. I know. Just my luck the kid only learns the first sound she hears."

Caroline picked at her food while the adults carried on polite conversation. She gratefully shared some of her meal with Dief when her parents werenít looking. She smiled up at her Uncle Rah as he spooned a bite of potatoes in his mouth. She wondered why he looked so sad.

~~~

"Did you finally get her to sleep?" Ben leaned back in his recliner and flipped the remote to the news. Sara and Ray walked from Saraís room to the den. Sara flopped down in Benís lap and snuggled into his chest.

"After you kissed her goodnight, it took Ray two Blueís Clues and an Elmo book to get her to sleep."

"The kid just loves the sound of my voice."

"Iím sure thatís it." Sara offered him a sarcastic smile. But, instead of the usual grin in return she was met with a very solemn nod of the head. She lifted herself from Benís lap and went over to the couch to sit by Ray.

"Spill it."

"Spill what?"

Ben sat up in the recliner and faced Ray. "Youíve been depressed all day, Ray. If you would like to discuss something with us, we are ready to listen."

"I donít know what youíre talking about Fraser." Sara took Rayís hand and looked him straight in the eye.

"Youíre a lousy liar. We know whatís wrong and Iím just going to say it straight."

"Say what?" Ray felt a knot forming in the back of his throat. He didnít want to hear what Sara had to say. He didnít want to know that they no longer needed him to cover for their best friend. He didnít want to hear that they were grateful the Real Ray was back and they didnít have to pretend to like him anymore. He nervously ran his free hand through his hair. He could feel the palm of his other hand start to sweat as Sara squeezed it.
"Ray, I know that finding out that Ray Vecchio has come back into our lives has upset you. I can only imagine what your screwed up little brain has been thinking. Youíve probably convinced yourself that now that Rayís back we can finally get rid of your or some other stupid shit like that." Ray lifted his head and his eyes met Saraís. He tried to speak but his throat wouldnít let him. Sara looked deep behind his pale blue eyes and reached for his other hand before he could look away.

"My God, you really think that."

"Ray, you canítÖÖ"

"Ray, we love you. You are part of our family. No matter what, you are part of our lives. So get those stupid, asinine thoughts out of that blond brain of yours. We love you dammit and weíre not getting rid of you." Sara smiled and leaned in to kiss Ray on the cheek. He reached up and placed his hand on the back of her head as he sighed with relief.

"You really know how to make a guy feel stupid, Sara."

"You do a fine job on your own." Ben nodded and chuckled as Rayís eyes regained their spark.

"Youíre my friend Ray. I donít take that lightly. Ray Vecchio is my friend as well. Just because he has returned doesnít mean that there is no room for you."

"I just thoughtÖ.."

"Yeah, that was your first mistake."

"Oh youíre funny, Sara." Ray poked her in the ribs and laughed as she engulfed him in a hug.

"Stay here tonight. That way you and Ben can get an early start in the morning. I believe you said the meeting starts at nine."

"Yeah, I can tell you Iím not looking forward to this. The Feds have a way of screwing the easiest things up."

"Thatís why were going to be there to make sure nothing happens to Ray."

"I hope things go smoothly."

"As do I, Ray. As do I."

~~~

Sal pulled the car around and waited for Armando and Gino to exit the lobby of the hotel. Today was a very big day. The future of the Iguana familyís business relied on todayís meeting. Sal flipped the stations on the radio until he saw Gino walk through the revolving door toward the long black Lincoln. Sal looked past Gino to see a very nervous looking Armando. *Whatís the matter with him? He looks like a scared kid or somethiní * Sal had taken up the task of watching his bossí movements very carefully. At first he chalked his nervous behavior up to the importance of the meeting, but now he wasnít so sure. Since the other night when Armando left the hotel, he hasnít been the same. Sal noticed a wave of panic pass over Armandoís face. He was sure he saw it, even if it was just for an instant. Sal looked around to see what could have caused such a reaction. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Just a bunch of cars driving by on the street; a good looking blond in a BMW and a nice looking GTO with some guy in a red coat in the passenger seat waiting at the light.

Armando and Gino slid into the back seat. Gino motioned for Sal to drive and the three of them were on their way.

~~~~~~

"Donít lose them."

"I see them Fraser. Iím not going to lose them." Ray could tell Fraser was about to jump out of his skin. He had never seen the Mountie on edge like this before. They took a side street and managed to get four or five cars behind the Lincoln. It took them nearly fifteen minutes to get to the other side of town in the warehouse district. In a maze of buildings and back alleys, the Lincoln made its way to a large gray building. The only thing out of place was the fourteen cars parked out front. Sal pulled alongside a gray limo and jumped out of the car to open the door for Armando and Gino. The two men strode confidently into the building and took their seats at a large table that had been set up in the middle of the large warehouse. Two older and very well dressed men sat at either end of the table. One was the boss from the Iguana Family; the other represented the Falcone Family. All the players were in place; it was time for the meeting to begin.

~~~~~

Ray and Fraser walked swiftly up the alley and made their way to the roof. Fraser motioned to Ray and made him aware of the FBI agents stationed across the street and near the entrance of the alley. He knew that their presence was not welcome, but this was more important than protocol. This involved the life of his friend. Ray and Fraser positioned themselves near the large sky light on the roof. Ever mindful of the position of the sun and the shadows they cast on the roof, they left nothing to chance. Peering into the large room, they waited.

Sal lumbered into the building and took his seat next to Armando. He looked from one man to the other and then nodded. A large man walked from the corner of the room and stood behind Armando. Armando could feel the sweat pooling in the small of his back He knew that something wasnít right. Something was up, he was made. Sal shifted in his seat and wouldnít look at Armando. The boss of the Iguana family motioned his hand and Armando felt two hands reach out and pull him to his feet.

"Armando, it has come to my attention that perhaps your loyalties lie in other hands."

"Excuse me? I donít know what youíre talking about."

"It has be told to me by my sources that you are not who you say you are."

"What? What is that supposed to mean?"

Ray felt as if his heart was about to explode. His eye caught a glimpse of red. *Oh God! Benny! * Fraser knew that something was going wrong. They had found out about Ray. Kowalski drew his gun from its holster and nodded at Fraser. Fraser looked from side to side and saw a flurry of movement from the roofs of the other buildings. The FBI was moving in. But would they reach him in time. Ben stood at the top of the skylight and watched as the large man standing behind Ray pulled a gun from his jacket and pointed it at Rayís head. Before either man could think, Ben and Ray leapt forward and crashed through the glass skylight. In a fall of glass and metal the two men came crashing down in the center of the large table. Men ran in every direction. The FBI agents burst through every entrance to the building. Shots were being fired in every direction. Benís only concern was Ray. He had to get to Ray. Kowalski leapt from the table and took cover behind a large stack of crates. He was returning fire in every direction. He caught a glimpse of Fraser as he ran in the direction of Vecchio. Pulling his glasses from his pocket, he threw them on his face and took aim and provided cover for his friend.

"Ray!" Ben raced toward Vecchio and lunged toward the large man that held him by the shoulders. Ray fell to the ground as Kowalski ran toward Fraser in an effort to extract the larger man who was now hitting him in the face. Federal agents swarmed the building like locusts. Shots rang out in every direction. Vecchio felt himself being pushed to the ground as another barrage of shots rang out. Kowalski leapt on top of the man who was hitting Fraser and punched him in the head. Fraser rose to his feet and struck the man in the jaw. Vecchio tried to stumble to his feet once again. The shots had slowed and he heard the sound of agents calling out to one another. He heard his name being called from a distance. His real name.

"Vecchio!" He looked around trying to orient himself to what was going on around him. "Vecchio! What the hell happened?!" A man dressed in all black ran to him and grabbed him by the arm. Rayís eyes focused in on his face and he realized it was Agent Martin, his contact in the Bureau.

"IÖ.I was madeÖ..they wereÖ..Fraser and KowalskiÖÖFraser!" Ray felt a jolt of fear run through him. *Oh God! * "Oh God! Whereís Benny?!"

"Who?!"

"The Mountie." Before Agent Martin could respond Ray ran frantically to the area he had last seen Ben. Running at full speed past other agents and fallen mobsters, he saw them.

Fraser was lying face down on the concrete floor of the warehouse. A quick glance to the side told him that Kowalski was lying on his side near some wooden crates to the left. He reached for the nearest agent and grabbed his radio from his side.

"This is Detective Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD working undercover with the FBI, I need paramedics at this location immediately. Do you copy!? We have officers down! Officers Down!"

~~

"Weíve got one victim with a gunshot wound to the abdomen and one to the upper thigh. The second victim has a gunshot wound to the chest, broken arm and possible head injury. We are leaving the scene. ETA is approximately ten minutes." The EMT screamed into the radio as they loaded Kowalski and Fraser onto stretchers. Ray held a firm grip to Benís hand and refused to release his hold. As they lifted Kowalski into the back of the second awaiting ambulance Ray called out to him.

"Iíll be right there, Ray. Iím going to ride with Benny! Iím not going to leave either of you!" The doors slammed shut and the ambulance pulled away from the frenzied scene.

Ray hopped in the back of the ambulance and knelt next to the stretcher that carried Ben.

"Oh God, Benny. What were you doing there? You werenít supposed to be there. You have to hold on for me Benny. Youíre going to be fine. Youíve got to be fine. Benny, hold on."

~~~~

Ben blinked twice. His chest hurt. Why did his chest hurt? *Ray? Ray, why are you crying? Iím moving. Iím in a car and Iím moving. What is that noise? * Ray saw the look of confusion on Benís face. He turned his head toward him and looked straight into his eyes.

"Youíve been shot Benny. But youíre going to be okay, you hear me!? Youíre going to be fine!" In a raspy voice Ben could only manage one word. "Sara."

"Iíll call her Benny. Stay with me." Ray felt the sting of his tears run down his face as the medic pushed him out of the way. He strapped an oxygen mask over Fraserís face and started an IV line. Ray had been in this situation before and it sickened him every time. He couldnít lose Fraser now. He just got him back. He didnít care if that sounded selfish; he wanted to be selfish.

Ben felt the urge to sleep. He was suddenly very tired. He just wanted to close his eyes and sleep. The EMT jerked at his shoulder and called out his name.

"Constable Fraser! Stay with me, buddy! Heís slipping in and out, start me another liter!"

Ray lurched forward and the ambulance screeched to a halt at the emergency room. The first ambulance that had carried Kowalski had just pulled out of the way. Ray jumped from the back of the ambulance and ran to keep up with the gurney. He had a firm grip on Benís hand and refused to let him go.

"Iím still here, Benny! Iím not going to leave you!"

"Ray." Fraserís voice was weak and barely a whisper. Ray had heard him just the same.

"Iím here! I wonít leave you. I wonít ever leave you again?"

"No, Ray. Howís Ray?" Rayís nearly lost it. He had forgotten for a moment about the man that sacrificed everything for him had been injured too.

"Theyíre taking care of him Benny. Iíll go check on him, I promise." Fraser responded by squeezing Rayís hand. They burst into the emergency room and ran down the corridor to the nearest trauma room. Ray was pushed up against the wall and forgotten as the doctors began to work on Fraser. Looking to his left, he saw a set of doors. Through the window he could see Kowalski on the table in the room next door. Doctors and nurses were buzzing around him. One was inserting a tube down his throat while another was giving him a shot of some kind. Hearing one of the doctors yell in his direction, Ray turned to face Fraser again.

"Get him out of here!" A nurse grabbed him by the arm and pushed him toward the door. He was alone in the hall watching, as his best friend lay wounded on the table and praying that he would live.

~~

Katie took the steps two at a time up to the third floor. The elevator wasnít fast enough for what she needed to do. She burst through the stairwell door and ran for the nurses station.

"Lys, whereís Dr. OíNeill?!"

"Room 3546. Sheís with a paÖÖ" Katie sprinted down the hall and into room 3546. A young girl was listening as Dr. OíNeill was explaining how her knee surgery would go tomorrow.

"Dr. OíNeill, I need to speak to you right away." Irritated at the interruption, she turned and waved Katie off.

"Just a moment, please."

"No, Itís an emergency. I need to see you right away in the hall." Seeing the determination on Katieís face, she knew she better not argue.

"Please excuse me." The nurse took Natalie by the arm and pulled her over to a far corner in the hall.

"What is it Katie?"

"Nat, they just brought two officers in with bullet wounds. One of them is your friend Saraís husband and the otherÖ.." Natalie didnít have to hear the words. She ran full force down the hall and smacked the emergency elevator button. In two seconds she was on her way to the ER.

~~~~~~~~~

Welsh pulled up to the large apartment building and ran to the elevator. Jack Huey was on his way to the Vecchio residence while Louis was driving Francesca to the hospital.

Welsh rubbed his hand over his face while a frustrated sigh escaped his lips. He rushed to the apartment door and rang the doorbell.

"Hey Harding." Saraís smile quickly faded when she saw the look on Welshís face.

"SaraÖÖ"

"Oh God. Who?! Ben? Ray?"

"Fraser and Kowalski have been injured." Sara spun around and reached for her purse and Caroline's bag.

"Caroline! Caroline, Momma needs you to come here right away!"

Caroline raced around the corner and saw her motherís upset expression. She saw Uncle Rahís boss and Daddyís friend at the door and he looked upset. Before she could speak, Sara whisked her into her arms and the three of them ran for the elevator. Grabbing Carolineís car seat from the Jeep, Welsh quickly positioned it in his police sedan.

~~~~~~~

Natalie moved at a blind run through the emergency room. She screamed at the first nurse she saw and demanded information.

"Where is the police officer that was just brought in?! What trauma room?!" Taking her by the arm and nearly jerking the information from her, the nurse gave her the number of the room.

"Trauma five." Taking off at a run, she rounded the corner and pushed her way past an intern that was blocking her way. Before she could push her way into Trauma Room five, Natalie saw a man standing outside of Trauma Room four. Hearing the sound of someone running. Ray turned just as Natalie looked his way.

She paused for only a moment allowing enough time for the information to click in her brain.

"Oh dear God in Heaven." Turning back to the trauma room doors, she pushed through the doors and saw Kowalski lying on his back with a team frantically working on his wounds.

"What are you doing in here?!"

"Whatís his status?"

"Mary, get Dr. OíNeill out of here! Sheís too close to this one."

"Peter, I can handle this." Peter looked at her over his mask. He had known Natalie a long time. He knew her feelings for Ray. He knew she wouldnít be able to handle this.

"No, Nat. His injuries arenít life threatening. The shot to the abdomen doesnít seem to have done severe damage. Once we get him prepped weíll take him up to surgery. Just get out of here and let us do our jobs." Peter nudged her out of the way with his elbow and started to work on Rayís leg wound.

~~

Natalie stepped back into the corridor and stared into Trauma room five as they were working on Ray. She turned slightly to see Vecchio standing outside of the other trauma room door.

"Oh Jesus, Ben!" She raced past him and pulled on some scrubs.

"What do we have?"

"Gun shot to the chest, no exit wound. Heís got a broken arm and a possible concussion."

"Let me see him." Natalie pushed her way to Benís side and began ascertaining his condition. As she worked she talked to him.

"Ben, youíre at the hospital. Youíre going to be okay. Rayís fine, Ben. Heís not in any danger. Ben, you have to listen to me now. Youíre going to be okay. Give me another liter of O neg and get an OR ready! Has someone called his wife!? Ben, Iím going to make sure Saraís here. Ben! Stay with me. Youíre doing just fine." Natalie feverishly worked to stabilize Fraser and get him ready to go into surgery. She was determined and everyone in the room could tell. "Sally, call upstairs, let them know weíre on our way. Dr. Micheals, Iím sorry to have taken your patient, but this is personal. This man will not die today. Do you hear me Benton Fraser? You will hang on! Youíve got a baby girl at home that needs her daddy."

Ben could hear his name being called. The haze of pain and unconsciousness battled in his mind. His thoughts drifted. //// Ben, you need to take a shower. Youíre going to be lateÖÖ.Daddy, I made dis picture for youÖÖ.Ray!Ö..Yeah Benny, itís meÖÖ.I love you, BenÖÖI wuves you, daddy.////

 

~~~~~~

Screeching to a halt outside the emergency room, Welsh jumped from the car and went around to the other side to help Sara and Caroline. The three of them rushed through the corridor in time to see Fraser being wheeled onto the elevator. Natalie cast a reassuring look to Sara just as the doors closed. Clutching Caroline to her chest, Sara stood in the hallway and wept. Caroline hugged her Winnie the Pooh close to her chest. In a small voice she called, "Momma, I want my daddy." Sara wiped the tears from her face and hugged Caroline tighter.

"Me too, baby. Me too."

~~~~~~~

"Canadian Consulate, Constable TurnbullÖÖ I seeÖÖ.Weíre on our way." The usual chipper expression faded quickly from Turnbullís face as he listened to Lt. Welsh calling from the Emergency Room. He quickly hung up the phone and raced up stairs. Without bothering to knock, Turnbull burst into Inspector Margaret Thatcherís office.

"Turnbull! What is the meaningÖÖ."

"Itís Constable Fraser, heís been shot!"

"Dear God, where is he?"

"Chicago General. Lt. Welsh is there with Sara and Caroline."

"The Vecchioís?"

"On their way."

"You bring the car around and Iíll call Saraís family."

"Yes, sir." Running from the room, Turnbull prayed as he exited the Consulate.

~~~~~

Jacky rode his favorite horse through the pasture as he checked on the fence line near the south side. His cell phone rang on his hip.

"Jacky MontgomeryÖÖ.hey MegÖÖ.JesusÖÖÖhowís Sara?ÖÖ..Weíre on our way." Flipping his cell phone closed and placing it back in the holster on his hip, Jacky rode at a full gallop back to the barn. He dismounted his horse and ran through the side pasture where his father was checking the calves. Jack Montgomery saw the panicked look on his sonís face as he ran across the open field.

"Daddy! Itís Ben! Weíve got to go!"

"Whatís wrong?!" Walking briskly back to the pasture gate, he and Jacky made their way to the house.

"Benís been shot. Ray too. Sara and Caroline are okay. Benís hurt pretty bad."

"Go pack us up and Iíll get us a plane. Call Debi on the phone upstairs too."

"Yes sir." Jacky bounded up the porch steps and ran upstairs to his room. Grabbing his duffel bag from the closet, he shoved several changes of clothes in the bag while he called Debi. Within twenty minutes, Jack and Jacky were on their way to the airport to board a chartered flight to Chicago.

~~~~~~

Barbara Kowalski wiped her hands on a dishtowel and walked over to the ringing phone. Feeling her heart sink to her stomach she listened intently and tried to comprehend Lt. Welshís words.

"Weíll be there as soon as we can. Tell my son his mother is on the way."

Barbara hung up the phone and ran through the house and out to the back yard to find Damien. The hot Arizona air seemed to take her breath as she opened the back door and screamed his name. Within forty-five minutes, two very worried parents were booking a flight to Chicago and praying their son would be all right.

~~~~~

Sara clung to Caroline as they stood in the hallway and stared at the now closed elevator doors. A hand reached out and took her by the shoulder. Blinking the tears away from her eyes, she looked up and saw Ray Vecchio.

"Sara." Ray reached out and enveloped her and Caroline in his arms. The three of them stood there in the chaos of the ER and cried.

~~Francesca fought back the urge to cry as she pulled her cell phone from her purse. * Calm down. Fraserís been hurt before. You donít even know how bad it is. Heíll be fine. Ray will be fine too. They have to be fine. * Francesca frantically dialed as her mother sat beside her in the back seat and prayed.

"Hey Jack, canít you go any faster?!"

"Iím hurrying Fran."

Francesca held her phone to her ear and waited for Johnís assistant to answer.

"John Chamberlainís office. This is Josh speaking."

"Josh, this is Fran. I need to speak to John right away."

"Iím sorry, Miss Vecchio, heís in the middle of shooting a scene."

"Listen, I donít care if heís in the middle of shooting a cannon, this is an emergency! Get him to the phone!"

"Hold, please."

"Fran?"

"John, Benton and Ray have been shot. Weíre on our way to Chicago General now."

"Where are you now?"

"Lexington and Park."

"I should be there by the time you pull up!" Closing her cell phone, Francesca leaned against the back seat and reached for her motherís hand.

"Theyíre going to be fine, sweetheart."

"I sure hope so Ma."

~~~~~~

Lt. Welsh closed his cell phone and walked back into the hospital to check on Sara. As he walked down the hall he saw a man with his arms around her shoulder as she held Caroline. Walking closer, he realized who he was.

"Ray!"

Ray spun around and was engulfed in a hug by Welsh.

"Sir!" The two men embraced and then realized a very distraught Sara was left standing alone against the wall. Ray quickly turned his attention back to Sara while Welsh went to find a nurse.

"Excuse me, Iím Lt. Welsh, Chicago PD. Iíve got two officers in surgery and I wonder if you have some type of private area the families can wait in?" The nurse smiled and directed him to a large desk near the end of the hallway.

"Mrs. Wheeler can help you." Welsh knew that once the Vecchio family had arrived at the hospital, the sight of Ray would be overwhelming. The more privacy the better.

~~~~~~~

John Chamberlainís limousine the show insisted he take pulled up to the emergency room as Huey was parking the car that carried Francesca and Rosa Vecchio. John was still dressed in wardrobe clothes as he exited the back of the car and ran over to Francesca. Kissing Francesca quickly on the cheek he took both women by the hand as he escorted them into the emergency room. Once inside, they were directed upstairs to a small private waiting room. John held the door for Francesca as she entered the room. She saw Sara sitting with Caroline on her lap and a man in a long coat was kneeling down in front of her. His back was to them and she didnít recognize him. Hearing the door open, Sara lifted her eyes and met those of Francesca. Saraís gaze then turned to Ray and she offered him a small smile. Turning, he stood and faced his family for the first time in three and a half years. Francescaís breath caught in her throat. She wasnít sure if what she saw was real. She looked back at Ma who had yet to see Ray. Rosa was still entering the door when she heard Francesca gasp.

"Francesca, whatís wrong?" In barely a whisper, she answered her mother.

"Holy Mother of God." Looking up, Rosa saw the deep green eyes of her son. Ray swallowed hard and tried to keep his emotions in check. He lost that battle once Francesca rushed toward him and collapsed in tears into his arms. Engulfing both her children, Rosa Vecchio openly wept and prayed aloud in Italian giving thanks for the safe return of her son.

~~John and Francesca sat on the small sofa in the waiting room. Francesca had finally calmed down after seeing Ray. She quietly blew her nose while John rubbed her back lightly with his hand. Rosa sat on one side of Sara while Ray sat on the other. Rosaís emotions were still in shock as she held Caroline on her lap and rocked her gently. One moment she was worried and upset about Kowalski and Benton. Then the next moment was the happiest of her life. She had her Raymondo back.

She hummed softly to Caroline in an effort to get her to take a nap. Sara stared blankly at the wall as Ray rubbed her hand softly.

Sara jumped slightly and looked expectantly toward the waiting room door as it opened. Welsh held the door and allowed Meg and Turnbull to enter. Meg entered the room and stopped in her tracks. Ray stood and waited on the reaction he would get from the Dragon Lady. She took a small step forward and blinked slowly trying to comprehend what her eyes were seeing. Ray walked quickly forward and instinctively hugged her. Realizing what he had done, his first instinct was to pull away. But when Meg reacted to his embrace in kind, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the feeling of hugging an old friend. She stepped back with her hands still on his sides and smiled.

"Itís good to have you home."

"Itís good to be home, Inspector. I just wish it could be under better circumstances." As she stepped to the side and went to Sara, Turnbull nearly knocked Ray off his feet. Normally irritated by the large Mountieís goofball ways, Ray relished the large hug and the misty eyes Turnbull offered.

While Turnbull gushed his emotional greeting to Ray, Meg walked over to Sara. Smiling slightly at John and Francesca and nodding politely to Mrs. Vecchio, Meg sat next to Sara and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Have you heard anything?" Fighting the urge to scream out, Sara swallowed hard. She stared straight ahead, fearing if she looked at the sadness and concern on their faces she would completely break down. She couldnít do that. It would upset Caroline too much. She couldnít loose her grip. Not in front of her child. Taking a deep breath she answered Meg in a soft whisper.

"No, Natalie is performing the surgery."

"Heís going to be fine."

Sara nodded her head slightly in agreement and then wiped a hand over her face.

"He has to be."

~~

Caroline had finally fallen asleep in Mrs. Vecchioís lap. When she and Sara decided to go to the chapel, Ma handed Caroline gently into Rayís arms. He held her small sleeping form in his lap and rested her head against his shoulder. She sighed contently and snuggled into his chest. Ray sat on the small couch in the waiting room and reflected on the last three days. Ma, Sara and Francesca had gone to the hospital chapel to pray. Meg and Turnbull decided to find out about Kowalskiís condition while John called the studio to let them know what was happening. He had missed so much. He had been gone too long. How could he ever feel the same again? He leaned down and lightly kissed the top of Carolineís dark brown hair. He smiled as she slept. He was lost in studying her face. Her eyes and hair were Fraserís. But her other features were distinctively Saraís. She had the same cute nose with that crooked little smile. How could things ever be the same?

It had been nearly four hours since Ben had been taken up to surgery. No one had told them about Kowalski yet and Lt. Welsh was starting to get irritated. Meg, Turnbull and he gathered in the hallway outside the waiting room and spoke quietly.

"Have you heard anything?"

"No one will tell me anything. Iím worried, sir."

"I know Turnbull. Perhaps itís time to rethink our strategy. Nice is no longer the way to approach this situation." Meg looked over to Lt. Welsh and gave him a long hard stare.

"You got it. Iím going to find out about my men." Welsh walked quickly over to a large nurse sitting behind a desk near the end of the hallway. She looked up and gave him a blank look as he pulled out his badge.

"Iím Lt. Harding Welsh with the Chicago PD. I have two of my men in surgery and I need to know their condition. And I need to know it now."

"Has your hospital liaison spoken to you?"

"My what?"

"Hold on, there must have been a mix up." The nurse grabbed the phone and spoke very abruptly into the receiver at the person on the other end.

"I see. Well, you need to get down here now." Hanging up the phone, she smiled slightly. "Youíll have the information you need in about ten minutes. Sorry for the delay. When you were moved up here from the ER, they didnít inform the support staff. Itís our normal practice to have a representative with the families in situations like this."

"Thank you. It will be appreciated."

~~~~

Jack Montgomery and Jacky walked quickly to the information desk at the hospital. The nurse could see the panic on both of their faces.

"I need to find my daughter, Sara Fraser. Her husband is a Mountie, heís been shot."

"Yes, sir. We were told of your arrival. They are on the third floor in waiting room 312. Once upstairs, the nurse can take you there."

"Thank you."

Carrying their luggage, each man rushed to the elevator and waited for what seemed like an eternity.

The elevator doors parted and they rushed down the hall toward the nurses station.

"Sara Fraser. Sheís my daughter."

"Yes, sir. The families are in waiting room 312. Down the hall and to the right."

"Thank you."

Jacky walked ahead of his father and reached the door first. Pushing through the door, he saw Ray and Caroline sleeping on the end of a small uncomfortable looking couch.

"Iíll be damned. Daddy, look."

"Thank God." Mr. Montgomery walked into the waiting room and placed his bags on the floor. Caroline stirred and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She smiled up at her Uncle Ray and then looked around the room to figure out where she was. A smile found its way to her face as she leapt from Rayís lap and stood on the cushion of the couch.

"Pawpaw!"

Ray was jolted awake at the sound of Carolineís voice. Still in a daze he called out her name.

"Caroline?"

"Pawpawís here Uncle Ray!" Ray looked up and saw Jack Montgomery and Jacky standing at the end of the couch. Jack kissed Caroline on the cheek and handed her to Jacky.

"Hey Doodlebug. Howís my girl doing?"

"I want my daddy, Uncle Jacky."

"I know, bug." Ray stood and watched the exchange between Caroline and Jacky. Jack took a step forward and smiled.

"Welcome home son." Ray felt the tears rush to his eyes once again as Mr. Montgomery pulled him into a warm embrace.

"Itís all my fault."

"Tell me what happened. Whereís Sara?"

"She, Franny and Ma are in the chapel. John, Meg, Turnbull and Welsh are here too. They went to see about Kowalski."

"Are you okay?"

"Me?"

"Yes, son, you. Tell me what happened."

As Jacky and Caroline dug through her bag for some cheerios and a juice box, Ray and Jack sat on the couch and Ray explained everything. At the mention of Caroline running up to Ray in the street Jack and Jacky smiled. Caroline, who appeared to be engrossed in her coloring book, looked up and smiled at Ray.

"I love you, Uncle Ray. Momma says you love me too."

"I sure do kid. I sure do." Jack nodded and smiled.

"Sheís always known about you. Sara made sure of that."

"Iím glad. Iíve missed everyone so much. But why did it have to be like this? Why?"

Before Jack could answer Turnbull and Meg returned to the waiting room. Everyone greeted one another with soft worried smiles and hugs and settled back into the uncomfortable couches to wait. Turnbull looked around nervously and then spoke quietly to Jacky.

"Did Debi not make the trip?"

"She couldnít leave the pharmacy right away. Weíve booked her on a commercial flight this evening. We took the charter."

"I see."

"She asked that you call her and let her know the situation."

"Iíll wait until the hospital representative gets here so Iíll have some information for her."

"I hope they get here soon. Iím sick of waiting." Turnbull nodded and leaned back against the back of the chair. His thoughts drifted back to last year when he and Debi were still together. He missed her. But things donít always work out. They were still friends, but he still loved her. She had wanted him to move to South Carolina, but there was nothing there for him. He would have to have resigned his position in the RCMP. To him, that would be giving up his life. Debi didnít want to move to Chicago. She had a business of her own and didnít want the uncertainty of living in the city. After a while they simply drifted apart. The visits became less frequent and then the phone calls became shorter. Words were left unsaid and things just ended. He sighed and shifted his large frame in the small chair.

 

~~"Clamp!" Natalieís tone was different than usual to her surgical team. Most of them knew of Sara and her husband the Mountie. All of them knew of her long time boyfriend Ray. The weight of the situation hung in the air as Natalie feverishly worked on saving Benís life. Dr. Michaels assisted in the operation and tried to keep Natalie in check.

"Youíre doing great, Nat. Almost there."

"I got itÖ..got itÖ.come on babyÖÖthere. Sponge."

"Watch that bleeder there."

"I see it. Come on Ben. Work with me here. Youíre are not going to die today. Today is not your day. Youíve got a child to see on her first date. Youíve got to cry at the door as she goes off to college. Youíve got to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. Come on. Howís his pressure looking?"

"Heís doing fine. I think he hears you."

"I know he hears me."

~~~~~

Kelly Landon walked quickly down the corridor and into the waiting room. She was dressed in a professional looking business suit and carrying a clipboard.

"Hello, Iím Kelly Landon. Please call me Kelly. I have some information on Detective Ray Vecchio and Constable Benton Fraser. Is Mrs. Fraser here?"

"Sheís in the chapel. If youíll give me a moment Iíll go get her." Turnbull jumped from his seat and sprinted down the hall to the elevator.

Within fifteen minutes, everyone was gathered in the tiny waiting room. Ma held Francescaís hand, While John had a protective arm around her shoulder. Jack held Caroline on his lap while Jacky sat next to his sister. Ray paced the floor in front of where Meg was sitting while Turnbull and Welsh leaned against the wall. As Kelly spoke, she directed her words to Sara.

"Detective Vecchio isÖ.."

"Kowalski." Sara corrected.

"I beg your pardon?"

"His real name is Kowalski. Please note that on your chart. The reason is not important right now." Kelly nodded and looked at the others as she noted the name on her chart.

"Detective Kowalski is in recovery. The surgeon removed the bullet from his leg and repaired the damage. The extent of his other gunshot wound was more severe but not life threatening. He is still unconscious but in stable condition. He will be moved to a room within the next two hours. You may see him then. Only the ones listed as next of kin can see him right now. Tomorrow he will probably be able to see the rest of you. Are Barbara and Damien Kowalski here?"

"No, they are flying in now. They should be here in the next few hours."

"The other two people listed in his files as next of kin are Mr. and Mrs. Benton Fraser. So Mrs. Fraser, when he comes out of surgery, Iíll come and get you."

"Thank you, now what is going on with my husband?" Sara was fighting the urge to take the extremely calm woman by the throat and shake the information out of her. The desire to scream was getting harder to suppress.

"Heís still in surgery. Dr. OíNeill has sent word down that everything is going well. They have removed the bullet from his chest and are now repairing the damage. He should be in recovery in the next four hours. Weíll let you know when we have anything furtherÖ.." Her thoughts trailed off as she read Benís next of kin. She looked up at Sara and then around the room. Kelly wasnít sure what was going on, but she knew that the FBI and the Chicago police were inquiring on the condition of these two men. She looked up from her chart and spoke to Sara once again.

"Constable Fraser has you, Mrs. Fraser and two others listed as his next of kin. Detective Raymond Vecchio and Detective Ray Kowalski Vecchio. Iím not sureÖÖ" Lt. Welsh stepped forward and took this matter it his own hands.

"This is Detective Raymond Vecchio. Detective Ray Kowalski is also with the Chicago PD. Thatís all you need to know at this time. Iím sure you can appreciate sensitive police matters, Ms. Landon."

"Of course. If you need anything, I can be reached at this number. Just have a nurse page me. Iíll check back in a hour or so to see how you are."

"Thank you."

Sara reached over and took Caroline into her arms. As she hugged her daughter, she felt the tears start to stream down her face. Jack pulled his daughter closer to him on the couch and held the two of them. The room was silent except for the gentle prayers of Rosa Vecchio.

~~Sara stood near the edge of the bed and looked at the sleeping form of Ray Kowalski. She gently lifted his hand and threaded her fingers through his. His leg was bandaged and elevated and he was still on an IV. The surgery had gone well and he would be fine in a couple of weeks. She brushed her hand over his forehead as she took a seat next to his bed.

"Iím here Ray. Iím right here. Natalie is in surgery with Ben. They havenít really told me anything yet. But heís going to be okay. He hasÖÖ" Saraís voice caught in her throat as the emotions overtook her. She laid her head down on the side of Rayís bed and wept.

~~~~~~

The door to Rayís hospital room opened and his parents stepped quietly inside. Barbara Kowalski took in the image of Sara Fraser weeping quietly and stroking her sonís arm. She had met Sara and Ben several times over the last three years. She was glad that her Stanley had such wonderful friends, especially after Stella. The end of his marriage was almost the end of him. He loved that woman so much. Barbara or Damien could never understand why. But there was something about her that only he could see. He drifted through life it seemed until he found Ben and Sara. They had been so worried when he had told them about his new assignment. Taking over another manís life. How could he even think of such a thing? Why would he want such a thing? Then to find out he was running around the city with a Canadian Mountie whose wife hated the very sight of him. That just worried his mother and father even more. Her poor Stanley had called many nights just wanting to hear a friendly voice. He would never come out and tell his mother what was wrong, but eventually she had pieced together enough to know what was going on. Then one day he called and he sounded the happiest she had heard him in years. Sara had a little girl. Barbara wasnít exactly sure what happened that day, but something had changed between Sara and her Stanley. The three of them had become so close. He had found a new girlfriend and he really seemed to have his life back on track. His self-esteem was still bruised but it was healing. Natalie was such a sweet girl. Damien really liked her. She was smart as a whip and could hold her own with the best of them. When Ray had brought her home for Christmas, Barbara kept dropping subtle hints about marriage. Steve didnít seem to get on Rayís nerves with Natalie by his side. His obnoxious older brother just seemed to be part of the scenery when he had Natalie to look at. Now Barbara and Damien stood near the door and watched as Ray lay unconscious in his hospital bed while the woman he considered one of his best friends wept by his side.

 

"Sara honey." Sara jumped slightly and wiped the tears from her face. She looked up to see the sweet motherly face of Rayís mom.

"Mrs. Kowalski. I didnít hear you come in. Was the flight okay? You didnít have any problems getting here did you?" Sara didnít know why she was making conversation. It just seemed easier than giving them the chance to ask about Ben. She was doing the very best she could with her emotions, but even she knew she was reaching the end of her rope. Worry and sadness were slowly squeezing her rational behavior away.

"Everything was fine dear. Francescaís fiancť, John and her sister Maria came to pick us up. Howís my baby doing?"

"The doctor said heís going to be fine. He should be out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. He was lucky in the fact that the bullet didnít hit him a few inches higher. Heís still knocked out from the anesthesia. The nurse left a few minutes ago and said that he would be out for probably another hour."

"Have you heard anything from Ben?" Damien saw the pain flash across Saraís face. He could tell her heart was broken.

"No maíam. Heís still in surgery. You and Ben and I are listed as Rayís next of kin. I couldnít let him be alone. He needed to know I loved him and that I was here."

"Youíre a good friend to him Sara."

"Heís a good friend to us. Besides, I have to take care of Uncle Rah." Sara tried to smile but it only seemed to make it even harder for her to fight back the tears that pooled in her eyes.

"Would you like to sit with him a while longer?"

Sara leaned over the bed and kissed Ray on the cheek.

"No, Iíll let you three be alone for a while. I love you, Ray. Youíre going to be fine."

Barbara placed a hand of comfort on her shoulder as she left the room. Sara stepped outside the door and leaned against the wall. She looked around her and saw doctors, nurses and visitors walking through the halls. Ray walked down the hall toward Kowalskiís room and saw Sara leaning against the wall. She was about to lose it. He could tell by the scared, lost look on her face.

Her eyes met his as he walked toward her. Ray took her by the shoulders and asked the question that would send Sara over the edge.

"You okay?" Ray wasnít shocked by what happened. In some way he was grateful. Sara had been so calm and so quiet for everyone elseís sake, he knew it was only a matter of time. Sara drew back her fists and beat them into his chest as she cried.

"No Iím not okay! How the hell can I be okay!? Rayís in there hurt and Ben, heísÖoh God, I donít even know how he isÖ..and you walk back here andÖÖyou left meÖ..you just leftÖ..I said I understood, but I didnít. I didnít understand Ray. Oh God, I donít even know what Iím saying. He canít leave me, Ray. I canít live with out Ben. I canítÖ.." As the emotions flooded from her, Ray stood in front of her and took her assault. He gently grabbed her wrists and pulled her to him. She clung to him as she sobbed.

"Heís got to be okay. HeÖ.He has to be. I canítÖ.lose him, Ray. I canít."

"I know. Heís going to be fine. Natalie is going to do everything she can you know that. Heís going to be fine." Ray and Sara stood in the hallway and held each other in a desperate hope to comfort each other and convince themselves that Ben would be okay.

~~Ray walked Sara back to the waiting room. Caroline was busy coloring in a book with Jacky while Rosa and Mr. Montgomery talked quietly. Turnbull was on the phone in the corner of the room. He and Tony had decided to pick Debi up at the airport. It was getting late and the strain of the situation was showing on everyoneís face. When Ray walked in the room with Sara in tow, everyone could tell she was extremely upset. John squeezed Francescaís hand and stood.

"Iím going to get us some dinner. I know none of us have eaten." John looked around and looked hopefully around the room.

"Thatís sounds like a good idea. We all need to eat something. Caroline has only had snacks from her bag for the past few hours." Rosa looked toward Caroline and then back to John.

"Iíll go to Carmineís and get us some take out. Caroline likes their ravioli."

"I likes avioliís." Caroline smiled up at John and then resumed coloring. Meg made room for Sara to sit down and tried to be as much of a comfort as she could be. Before John could ask everyone what they wanted, the waiting room door opened and a very tired looking Dr. OíNeill walked in.

"Natalie, howís Ben?!" Sara rushed toward her.

"I removed the bullet and we repaired the damage. A rib deflected the bullet so it didnít do as much damage as we thought to his lung. Heís arm has been cast and he has a subdural haematoma. So we are concerned about swelling. Heís in recovery now. You can see him in about an hour. His BP is strong and his vitals look great. But, weíre not out of the woods yet. He lost consciousness before surgery, so we donít know when heíll regain consciousness. Right now, all we can do is wait. Heís strong Sara. He just has to fight right now."

"I want to be with him now." Natalie could see the desperation on her face, but she knew it was too soon for Sara to be in the recovery room.

"Iím sorry Sara, youíll have to wait a while longer. Iíll come get you." Natalie looked around the room at the worried faces staring back at her. She then looked questioningly at Welsh.

"Has anyone called Rayís parents." Sara nodded and felt guilty. Natalie had been working so hard to save Ben, she had left the man she loved. Sara took her hand and looked at her friend.

"His parents are in his room. Heís going to be fine Nat. Iíve sat with him for a while. I told him you were with Ben. He was still out when I left him."

"Iím going there now. Donít worry Sara. Benís going to be fine. He and I had a little talk during surgery."

~~~~

 

 

"Momma, I want to show daddy my picture." Sara looked around the room at all the faces now staring at her. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

"Caroline, baby, come here and sit on Mommaís lap. I want to talk to you."

Caroline scrambled up from the floor and climbed up on her motherís lap, then waited on what Sara had to say.

"Caroline, honey, daddy and Uncle Rah had an ouchie today." With big concerned blue eyes, Caroline absorbed what her mother was saying.

"Did daddy fall down?"

"No, daddy didnít fall down. He and Uncle Rah were hurt at work today. They are in the hospital. Do you remember what the hospital is? Remember where Lulu bear went when she broke her arm in your book?"

"Datís where da doctors are."

"Thatís right."

"Natawie is a doctor. She and Uncle Rah kiss."

"I know. Natalie is working now on making daddyís and Uncle Rahís ouchie go away."

"Did she have to git a ban-daid?"

"Yes, sweetheart, she had to get a Band-aid. So daddy and Uncle Rah are going to be staying in the hospital for a while. Theyíre going to have to spend the night."

"Like a sweep over?í

"Yes, like a sleep over. Because Daddy and Uncle Rah have an ouchie they may be sleeping a lot. So when we go see them, we have to be very quiet. Do you understand?"

"Uh-huh."

Jack Montgomery sat stoically on the end of the couch and listened as Sara explained a very grown up situation to a three-year-old child. His eyes closed and remembered the pain he felt as a parent when he had to explain to his two children that their mother was not coming home from the hospital. He prayed that his children would never know that pain. Sara hugged her daughter close to her chest as everyone sat in silence.

~~~~~~

Natalie opened the door to Rayís hospital room and walked quietly inside. Barbara turned at the sound and greeted Natalie with a large motherly hug.

"Sweetheart, you look tired. Howís Benton?"

"Heís still in recovery, but his surgery went well. Has Ray regained consciousness yet?"

"Not yet dear. He seems to be sleeping peacefully."

"Well, we really need to see if we can wake him up." Natalie walked to Rayís bedside and took him by the hand. She shook him slightly and tried not to aggravate his injuries.

"Ray, you need to open your eyes for me. Ray wake up." Damien and Barbara stood anxiously behind Natalie and waited on Ray to respond.

"Ray, wake up. Come on out of it baby. Youíve got people here that want to see that beautiful smile of yours." Watching his face intently, Natalie noticed a small flutter of his eyelids. Ray licked his lips and turned his head to the side.

"Mmmm."

"Ray, its Nat. Come on baby. Wake up."

"Mmmm, go away."

"Thatís it sunshine. Come back to me." Natalie placed a small kiss on Rayís lips as he grimaced.

"WhatÖÖ.?"

"Youíre in the hospital Ray. Youíve been shot." The haze of anesthesia clouded Rayís thoughts. He felt heavy and wanted to go back to sleep.

"FraseÖ.."

"I performed his surgery. Heís still in recovery. I just came to see how my baby was. Your parents are here."

"MomÖÖ"

"Iím right here, Stanley. Your dadís here too."

"Mmmm."

"Okay, thatís good, Ray. You can get a little more sleep now. Iím going to go check on Ben." Natalie turned and smiled to Barbara. "Heís going to drift in and out for the next couple of hours. He should be more alert tomorrow morning."

"Thank you sweetheart. Please tell Sara if she needs anything, weíre here to help."

"I will. Iíll check back in on him in a bit."

Natalie left Rayís room and found she was jogging back up stairs to recovery to check on Ben. She entered the elevator and prayed the duration of the trip.

 

~~Natalie held the door for Sara as the two of them walked into Benís hospital room.

"Heís still unconscious, but he can hear you if you speak to him. I know he can."

Sara walked past Natalie and moved slowly toward Ben as he lay in the hospital bed. Ben was always her foundation, her big strong husband. Now, he looked pale and helpless. Sara heard the sound of the monitors as they gauged his vitals. The smell, the sounds and the sight of his weakened form made her want to throw up. Sara swallowed hard and took another step forward.

Natalie took a quick step forward in an effort to catch Sara. She had assumed she was about to faint. Seeing her hands clasped in front of her chest, Natalie realized Sara had dropped to her knees beside Benís bed and begun to pray.

Natalie closed the door quietly behind her and left Sara alone with Ben.

"Ben, you canít leave me. I canít live without you. I love you, Ben. Please God, heal him. Stay with him and make him well. Be with him, Lord and give him comfort."

Robert Fraser stood in the shadows of the small hospital room. He stepped forward and placed his hands on Saraís shoulders as she begged for Godís grace to heal her husband.

"Godís with him, Sara. Itís not his time. Heís strong and heís fighting to come back to you and my granddaughter. Heís going to be fine."

Sara took a ragged breath as the tears overtook her again. She threaded her fingers through Benís hand and rested her head on his arm. Robert walked to the other side of the bed and joined her vigil next to Ben.

~~~~~

Natalie spoke quietly to Ray Vecchio as they stood outside the door of the waiting room. He nodded his head and then walked back inside to his mother.

"Of course, Raymondo. Iíll stop by her apartment and gather some of her things and have Francesca bring them back here."

"Thanks Ma. Will Caroline be alright staying with you?"

Hearing her name, Caroline ran over to Mrs. Vecchio and rested her arm over the elder womanís knee.

"Am I stayiní at yer house Grandma?"

Ray looked lovingly at the small child as she smiled sweetly up at his mother. *She talks like Sara. * Rosa always told Ben that he and Sara were family, but when Caroline was born, she never assumed what relationship she would have with their child. She recalled the first time Ben brought little Caroline over to the house. He held her with such pride that only a father could have for his daughter. Ben cradled her gently in his arms as he walked in the front foyer. He smiled sweetly at Mrs. Vecchio and then looked to Caroline.

"Would you like to meet your grandmother, little one?"

The sound of that one word brought tears of joy to Rosaís eyes. Now Caroline was her own grandchild, a cousin to Tony and Mariaís children. Ray reached his hand out and gently rubbed the top of Carolineís hair. He had missed so much. Caroline looked up at the man she had only seen in pictures and smiled. Moving away from Rosa, she raised her hands in the air and waited to be picked up. Ray lifted the small child into his arms and rested her tiny frame on his hip.

"Unca Ray?"

"Yes, sweetheart."

"Whereís momma?"

"Youíre momís visiting your dad."

"Daddy has an ouchie."

"I know sweetie, but your dadís going to be okay."

"Is momma sweepiní here wif daddy."

"Yes. Youíre going to stay withÖ" Ray paused a moment and smiled at his mother. "ÖGrandma. Is that okay?"

"Uh-huh. Can I sweep wif Theresa?"

"I think it will be okay if you sleep with Theresa."

"What Ďbout Diefenbaker?"

Ray smiled and looked around the room to where the wolf had been sleeping. He had almost forgotten about the ever-present companion.

"Dief can sleep with you too."

"He snores." Caroline giggled slightly and rested her head on Rayís shoulder. He could tell she was tired. They all were. It was getting late. Meg, Turnbull and Tony had left a few hours ago to pick Debi up at the airport. Maria and Francesca had returned home to be there when the kids got home from school. John had returned to the studio to finish shooting the scenes that he would be in for his show. Mr. Montgomery and Jacky were sitting quietly next to Rosa. They were all exhausted and worried. It had been ten and a half-hours since the shooting in the warehouse. The FBI had come to the hospital to question Ray but he didnít remember most of what he told them. He had an appointment to see them in Lt. Welshís office on Monday morning. He gave Caroline a kiss on the head and was a little surprised when she tightened her grip on his neck and snuggled close to him as only small children can do. Then he remembered that to Caroline, he was someone she had been told about since she was born. He sighed contently as he carried her over to Saraís dad.

"Iím going to go check on Sara. Are you staying at their place tonight?"

"Weíve gotten a hotel room near the hospital. Tell Sara, that weíre here. Weíre not going anywhere."

"I will."

~~~~~

Ray pushed the door open to the hospital room. He wasnít supposed to be there, but Natalie had cleared it with the staff. He stood behind Sara and gently took her by the shoulders to help her stand. She didnít look up or face him, she knew it was him.

"Ray, I canít lose him."

"You wonít. Bennyís been through hard spots before."

"He looks soÖ. Oh God, please donít let him die." She turned quickly and buried her head in Rayís chest.

"Shhh, heís going to be fine. Caroline is going home with Ma. Your family is still here. Turnbull went to pick up Debi. She should be here soon." Ray spoke in soft short sentences. He knew Sara wouldnít comprehend him otherwise. They sat there and cried and prayed.

~~Turnbull and Tony stood at the terminal gate and waited on Debi to exit the plane. Turnbull felt his heart skip at the sight of Debi walking through the crowd. *Oh dear. I wonder how she will react to me being here.* Tony looked at the nervous Mountie. Maria had filled him in on all the history between the two of them. He hoped there wouldnít be a scene. He hated scenes.

Turnbull smiled slightly as he raised his hand for Debi to see him. His nervousness faded when she started running toward him with a smile on her face.

"Ren!" The two of them embraced while Tony took her carry on bag.

"Debi, Iíve missed you." Debi pulled away slightly and her smile faded.

"Iíve missed you. Howís Ben?"

"Heís still unconscious. Letís get your luggage and weíll go back to the hospital. Sara could really use our support right now. Sheís doing her best to be strong for Caroline, but its getting harder."

"I just wish I could have gotten here sooner."

"The important thing is youíre here now." Debi and Turnbull both knew he wasnít just talking about Saraís situation.

~~~~~~

Sara sat holding Benís hand in hers. The sounds of the monitors and machines drifted through the cold hospital room. Ray stood by her side and tried to comfort her.

"He looks so helpless."

"Heís strong. Heíll make it."

"He has to make it." Ray placed his arms around Saraís shoulder in support.

"Caroline is with Ma. Sheís staying at our house tonight. Sheís waiting in the hall so you can tell Caroline goodnight."

"Thank you." Sara turned her pain filled eyes to Ray. He had missed her so much. Ben and Sara were his best friends in the world. How could things have turned out so wrong? Ray closed his eyes and hugged Sara. *It should be me in that bed, not Fraser. Me, Iím the one that should have been shot. Sara doesnít deserve this. *

"Will you sit with him while Iím gone? I donít want him to be alone."

"Sure." Sara leaned over Ben and kissed him softly on his pale lips. She turned and walked slowly out the door to say goodnight to her daughter.

Ray was now alone with Ben.

~~~~~

Ray sighed and rubbed his hands across his head. The strain of the day was wearing on his nerves. Worry and fatigue gripped his thoughts. He straightened in the chair and leaned toward Fraser. He took Fraserís hand in his own and took a ragged breath. The tears forced themselves to the surface as the two men sat in relative silence. Rayís tears flowed from his weary eyes down onto the back of Fraserís hand.

"Benny, Iím so sorry. It wasnít supposed to happen like this. Why does it always happen like this? You shouldnít have been there. I guess I knew you would be. Why do you always have to be super Mountie? You canít keep doing things like this. Sara needs you. You canít keep jumping through windows and stopping bullets meant for me. Itís just not supposed to be like this. Maybe I should have never come back. Maybe that would have been the best thing. You look like you were doing just fine without me." Sara stood at the door and listened to Ray speak through his tears. She hugged her arms around herself as the emotions rose to the surface once again. Sara wanted to stay but she knew that Ray needed to be alone with Fraser a while longer. She closed the door softly and walked to Ray Kowalskiís room.

 

Barbara and Damien Kowalski were still by Rayís side. He was waking up more frequently, but the medication still left him groggy and irritable. Sara knocked softly on the door and pushed it open. Barbara pulled Sara into a motherly hug and held her hand as they walked to Rayís bedside. Damien could see the dark circles forming under Saraís tear swollen eyes. His heart went out to her as she took Rayís hand in hers.

"Is he doing better?"

"Heís coming out of it. Natalie said he should be feeling a little better by tomorrow. Heís been in and out for a few hours. Weíre going down to the cafeteria. Can we get you anything, dear?"

"No thank you, Iím fine."

Barbara and Damien left the room so Sara could be with Ray.

She leaned over him and rubbed her hand down his arm.

"You better be okay. You hear me." Ray stirred slightly and Sara leaned in closer.

"Mmmm."

"Shhhh, itís me Ray."

"SarÖ"

"Shhh, just rest." Ray blinked and squeezed her hand. His eyes opened and saw a very tired and worried looking Sara.

"Whereís Frase?"

Sara tucked her head and tried to fight back the tears. The cloud that hung over Rayís thoughts was lifting as he fought to wake up. "Sara?"

"HeísÖ..heís still unconscious." Swallowing hard to keep the sobs from escaping her throat, she lowered her head onto his chest. He brought his hand up and placed it on he back of her neck.

"Hey, itís okay."

"Iím sorry. I didnít mean to do this. I was supposed to be looking after you, not the other way around."

"Yer just a dumb ole girl." Sara laughed in spite of her self and looked at the weak smile Ray offered her. She looked at him and smiled.

"I love you."

"I know. I kinda like you too." Sara tried to hug Ray without hurting him. To Ray it was a good pain. He was loved and he was grateful for it.

~~~~~

Ray held his head in his hands as he sat next to Ben. He was tired. Emotionally tired let alone physically tired. He thought coming home would make him feel like a million bucks. It only compounded the stress he had been under during his three-year assignment with the FBI. The sound of Benís breathing calmed him as he wept quietly.


Sara walked quietly back in the room and rubbed her hand down the back of Rayís head. Turning abruptly, he wrapped his arms around Saraís waist. He knew he should be strong for Sara, but he couldnít pretend anymore. He couldnít hold things back. Sara held his head while the two of them stood by Benís bed and wept.

~~~~~~

Debi walked quickly down the corridor toward the waiting room. Turnbull was close behind. Tony had dropped them off and was going home to check on Maria and the kids. Turnbull called out directions and motioned to Debi as they rushed through the halls.

Turnbull reached the door first and held it open for Debi. Jack Montgomery rose to his feet to greet her.

"Is Ben okay?! Whatís happeniní?" Jack pulled Debi toward the couch so she would sit and calm down.

"Sara and Ray are with Ben now."

"I thought Ray was shot too."

"Not that Ray. The real Ray. Ray Vecchio is back."

"Oh my God. Is he okay?"

"Yes, heís with Sara. Benís surgery went well. Natalie said that the main thing we should worry about now is Ben regaining consciousness. His gunshot wounds arenít what are worryiní her. Itís the head injury. Heís been out of surgery for about three hours. She said that he should start coming around by tomorrow morning. If not, they would run some more tests to see if the brain has sustained any damage."

"Can I see Sara?"

"Not yet. We canít go in to see Ben yet. She should be out soon. Jacky went to get some coffee. He should be back in a minute. Have you had a chance to eat yet?"

"No sir."

"Iíll be happy to bring you something Deb-I."

"Maybe you two should go downstairs and eat in the cafeteria. Iíll let you know if anything changes."

Turnbull offered his hand to Debi. She took it and rose to her feet. Before leaving she kissed Jack on the cheek.

Jack was alone in the room once again. He smiled to himself in hopes that Debi and Turnbull would finally talk things out.

 

~~~~~~

"Heís strong. Iím sure he is going to be fine."

"I hope so." Debi picked at her salad as the two of them chatted comfortably. Turnbull rose to refill his coke and offered to refill Debiís as he went. Debi couldnít help but watch his tall, muscular form as he walked across the dining area to the drink station. She felt a small pain in her stomach at the thought of those strong arms holding her close to his chest. Feeling her eyes on him, Turnbull turned to look over his shoulder. Debi smiled an embarrassed grin and quickly tucked her head. Turnbull felt his chest puff out a little as he walked back to the table. *She still likes me. *

 

 

~~~~~

Ray rubbed his eyes and tried to orient himself to his surroundings. Jack, Jacky and Debi were sitting opposite him in the waiting room. Turnbull had stretched out on the small couch in the corner. He stood and tried to stretch the knots from his back. Placing one hand on the small of his back, he leaned over and checked his watch. He must have fallen asleep sometime after midnight. *Geez, itís six-thirty. * Walking quietly down the hall, he went to Benís room in search of Sara. Pushing softly on the door, he saw the outline of her sleeping form slumped over the side of Benís bed. Walking inside, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room. He was starting to make out the shape of Saraís hand entwined with Benís. Then something struck him. He walked quickly over to the bedside table and switched on the small lamp. He felt the tears well up in his eyes as he looked at the two of them sleeping. Sometime during the night, Ben had reached out for Sara. His arm was draped over his stomach and his hand was resting gently on her head as she slept. He noticed his color was looking better and his breathing was stronger.

He placed his hand on Benís shoulder and applied a small amount of pressure. In a soft whisper, he called out his name.

"Benny. Can you hear me?"

Ray held his breath as he waited for a response.

"Benny, itís me Ray. Can you hear me, Benny?" Rayís heart skipped as he saw Fraserís eyes flutter ever so slightly.

"Benny, can you open your eyes for me?" Ray reached down and grabbed the call button. He frantically buzzed the nurse as he shook Ben a little harder than before.

"Benny. Benny, wake up."

"Mmmmhmhhmm." Ray could feel his heart beating out of his chest as Fraser turned his head to the side and made that little kid face he always made when he was tired.

"Thatís it. Open your eyes, buddy."

"Mmmm. SaraÖÖmmmm."

"Sheís right here." Ray reached over and pushed on Saraís shoulder. He realized after he had done it that his enthusiasm made him nearly push her off the edge of the bed.

"Sara! Wake up."

"Whatís wrong?!" Sara sat up startled and dazed from sleep. She looked at Rayís excited smiling face and then to Benís irritated one.

"Heís waking up. He had his hand on your head. He must have reached for you in the night."

"Oh God, Ben. Ben wake up." Sara smiled as the tears streamed down her face. She was overjoyed to see Ben scrunch his nose and furrow his brow in irritation at the two of them. The nurse that Ray had buzzed for came rushing into the room.

"Yes? Did someone ring?"

"Heís waking up. We need Dr. OíNeill."

"Iíll get her right away." The nurse left the room and walked swiftly to Ray Kowalskiís room. Natalie had given strict instructions to be notified of any change in Benís condition.

Natalie pulled her lab coat on as she ran down the hall. She burst into the room and went to Benís bedside.

"Heís coming out of it." Ray patted Ben gently on the shoulder while Natalie started checking his vitals.

"Ben! Ben can you hear me?" Ben turned his head away from her screaming.

"Hmmm."
"Talk to me Ben. I need to know if you remember what happened." She looked at Sara and offered a reassuring smile as she continued. "We have to make sure the brain didnít sustain permanent damage from the blow he took."

"Come on Benny, quit being stubborn. Say something."

"Hmm. StopÖ.screaming." Sara erupted into tears and bent down to kiss his cheeks. Natalie smiled and called for the nurse.

"Heís going to have a headache for a while."

"HmmÖ.SaraÖ.."

"Iím right here, honey."

"Ray?"

"Both Rayís are fine."

"Both."

A small smile played at his lips as he drifted back to sleep.

~~"I want to see him."

"No. Youíre not strong enough yet, so stop being difficult."

"Mom, tell her Iím well enough to go see Ben." Barbara Kowalski rolled her eyes as she turned to leave the room.

"Stanley, Natalie is a doctor. Iím sure she has a better understanding of your condition than I do. Stop acting like a child." Ray Kowalski slumped his shoulders in defeat. Natalie and Damien looked at him with smug expressions on their faces.

"If everything looks good tomorrow, Iíll get an orderly to help you down the hall so you can see Ben."

"Sara told me he was asking about me."

"He was. He was asking for both of you."

"Yeah."

Natalie noticed the look that played at Rayís features when she made reference to the real Ray Vecchio. She knew this day would come, she just never thought about the reaction it would have on him.

~~~~~

Sara fussed over Ben as he lay dozing in the hospital bed. She brushed his hair from his face and pulled the blankets up to his chest. Vecchio walked in and shook his head.

"Youíre making me nervous. Sit down somewhere."

"Heís justÖ..well, heís never been hurt since weíve been married. I guess Iím not handling things very well."

"Youíre doing fine. I talked to Ma. She and Francesca are bringing Caroline in about an hour. I talked to the doorman at your place and he said your family left about ten minutes ago."

"Did you call Meg?"

"Not yet. I still canít believe you melted the Ice Queen."

"You better not let Ben hear you say that. You know how he gets." Sara giggled as she emptied the water pitcher by his bed and straightened the box of tissues and get well cards on the bedside table.

"Sara, quit cleaning and sit down."

"I canít. Iím just so excited that heís going to be okay." Before Ray could speak, Ben shifted his position and started to slowly open his eyes. He had been drifting in and out all morning, but the medication made him incoherent and hard to understand.

"Ray." Benís voice was weak and raspy from sleep.

"Yeah, Benny?" Ray leaned over Benís bed so he could hear what Ben was saying. Ben rubbed his eyes and reached out for Saraís hand.

"Make her eat."

"Iím fine sweetheart. Iím not going to leave you."

"Ray." Even though they had been separated for three years, the unspoken bond was still there.

"You got it, buddy."

"No. I said no." Sara looked at Ray with a stern expression.

"Sara." Benís voice was weak but stern.

"Yes, darling."

"You have to take careÖ.. of yourselfÖÖ I know youÖ.." Ben took a deep breath. They could both see he was still very tired. Ray smiled at the love Ben had for Sara. She was always his first concern.
"Ben, Iím fine. Caroline will be here in a little bit."

"Doodlebug." Ben was drifting back into sleep. The medication still left him weak and dazed. Ray reached over and took Sara by the hand.

"You heard the man. Letís go get you some lunch."

"Iím not hungry."

"I donít care if youíre hungry or not. I know for a fact you didnít eat yesterday. Weíll go get something to eat and then go see Kowalski." Sara recognized the set of his jaw. She knew there was no arguing with him. Especially after Ben had asked him to do something.

"Letís go see Ray first. Maybe his parents need some lunch too."

"Okay, but weíre not staying long. You are going to eat."

"Okay." Ray slipped his arm around her waist and escorted her out the door. As he walked down the hall toward Ray Kowalskiís room, a sudden pang of nervousness traveled through his stomach.

~~Barbara and Damien were leaving Rayís room as Sara and Vecchio were walking down the hall.

"Hey, Mrs. Kowalski, howís Ray doiní?" Ray smiled to himself at the sound of Saraís accent showing through. *She must be more exhausted than sheís letting on. *

"Heís doing fine, sweetheart. Howís Benton?"

"Heís sleepiní. The medication still has him pretty out of it, but heís wakiní up more often."

"Thatís wonderful news, dear." Damien smiled at Sara and then let his gaze fall to Vecchio. Sara cleared her throat and introduced him to Kowalskiís parents.

"Ray Vecchio, Iíd like you to meet Barbara and Damien Kowalski."

"Itís a pleasure to meet you."

"Itís nice to finally meet you Detective Vecchio. I must admit itís odd meeting the man our son has claimed to be for three years."

"It is kinda strange."

For the first time Sara saw the uncertainty in Rayís eyes. She was so worried and focused on Ben; she hadnít had a chance to ponder what it would be like for her two Rays to finally meet.

"Weíre going to Stanleyís apartment for a while. Can we bring you anything when we come back later tonight?"

"No maíam. Thank you."

"All right, dear. Weíll see you in a little while."

"Bye." Sara smiled and waved as Barbara and Damien walked down the long hospital corridor. Sara took Ray by the hand and led him into Kowalskiís room.

The two of them entered and smiled as Natalie chastised Ray for acting like a baby.

"That hurts!"

"Itís just a little stick, now be still!"

"OW! You did that on purpose."

"Yes, Ray. I enjoy poking you with needles. Itís what I live for." Natalie rolled her eyes and then kissed Ray on the forehead. Sara and Vecchio laughed slightly and caught her attention.

"Look whoís here." Natalie could see the looks of trepidation that played across the two menís faces. She cast a look toward Sara and decided the three of them needed to be alone. "Good, you two can keep the pitiful patient company while I make my rounds and check on Ben. See you later, baby." Before Ray could argue, Natalie had kissed him and breezed out the door.

Kowalski looked nervously at Sara and then to the tall Italian. Vecchio looked at the floor not knowing what to say to the man that had taken over his life. Sara stood between the two trying not to suffocate from the tension.

Continued in part two


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