The Road Home is Often Longest
by Pretty Pretty

Part 2

Sara took a step forward and pulled Ray with her. Kowalski gave her a small smile as she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.

"Ray, Iíd like you to meet a friend of mine." Sara pulled Vecchio closer to her side and looked up at him with a broad reassuring smile. "Ray, this is Ray."

Vecchio shifted nervously in place while Kowalski scooted nervously up on the pillows of his bed.

"IÖ.donítÖÖ" Vecchio looked at Sara for support. He didnít know what to say. Here was the man that had taken over his life for three years. This was the man that gave up everything to keep him safe. This was the man that now had his friends. The emotions swirled through his mind like a tornado.

~~~~~

"Ma, hurry up! We told Ray we would be there by one."

"Iím coming dear. Are you driving?"

"No Ma. John is waiting outside. Weíll take his car. Caroline is outside with him."

Rosa smiled at her daughter and the happiness that seemed to be permanently affixed on her face. Johnís career had taken off since the start of ĎChicago Emergencyí. He had been on the cover of People magazine twice in the past two years. Even Francesca was pictured by his side at several functions. At first it was hard to get used to his success. Francesca wasnít used to women interrupting their dinner for autographs and pictures. John took it all in stride and once he explained to Francesca that she was the only woman he ever wanted, she began to take his fame in stride and enjoy the perks.

"You ready, love?"

"Just a sec, Maís getting some juice for Caroline out of the fridge."

"Will I gets to see my Daddy?"

John finished buckling Caroline into her toddler seat.

"Yes, love. Your mommy says your Daddy is feeling much better today."

Caroline smiled and lifted the drawing she held in her hand.

"Granma let me color dis for Daddy."

"Itís beautiful." John looked at the scribbled colors Caroline had placed so meticulously on the paper. He smiled to himself as he looked over his shoulder for Francesca.

"Weíre coming."
"Okay children, I am ready now." Mrs. Vecchio opened the back door of Johnís Mercedes and waited for Diefenbaker to jump inside. He always had to be near the little one. It was his job to protect his smallest pack member. Rosa settled into the back seat and smiled at Caroline. Dief was licking her cheeks as John started the car.

~~~~~~

Sara tightened her grip on Rayís hand in an effort to give him the strength he needed. Kowalski looked at Sara as the emotions he felt flipped about in the pit of his stomach.

"This is so strange. I canít imagine how hard it is on the two of you."

Vecchio nodded his head along with Kowalski. Then Kowalski did something that would begin their relationship from now on. Vecchio stood rigid and nervous as he watched the man that had taken over his life offer his hand. Vecchio looked at the outstretched hand and then to the supporting loving eyes of Sara. Vecchio released her hand and took a step forward. Grasping Kowalskiís hand, the two conveyed a myriad of emotions with a simple handshake.

"Thank you." The words were soft and calm. Kowalski heard them as if they echoed through the room. Vecchio had thanked him for everything. But what happens now? What would happen to Ray Kowalski? Sara could see the conflict in Kowalskiís eyes. She leaned forward and took his hand once again.

"Weíll talk about this later. Harding wants to meet with you, Ray and Ben once everyone has recovered." Both men shook their heads. Kowalski swallowed hard in an attempt to regain his voice.

"Howís Ben?"

"Heís doing much better. Heís sleeping now."
"When can I see him?"

"When Natalie says itís okay."

"I donít want to wait that long."

"Tough."

"Iíll show you tough." A small smile parted his lips as he joked with Sara. She was still his friend. She had promised to always be his friend. She hoped that she wouldnít break that promise.

"You hungry?" The two of them turned and faced Vecchio as he asked his simple question.

"Yeah. Iím starviní."

"Iíll pick you up something and clear it with Nat."

"Why do ya have to do that? Iím grown. I know if Iím hungry or not."

Sara rolled her eyes. Men were such babies when it came to getting hurt. "You just sit here and get better and donít give me any crap. Iíll tell your momma on you."

"Narc."

"Bite me."

"You wish."

Vecchio watched as his best friend and this stranger playfully spared against one another. Was it jealousy he felt? He hoped not. Who needed that crap at a time like this?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sara and Ray Vecchio slipped quickly back into Ray Kowalskiís room. Vecchio carried a large bag of take out under his arm while Sara looked around to make sure none of the nurses would walk in on them. Natalie had rolled her eyes but given her permission for Sara to bring Ray some Ďrealí food.

"Hey, you feel like eatiní"

"You must be really tired, Sar." Sara looked at him and tried to seem alert.

"Why do you say that? Iím fine."

"You sound like Thelma and Louise."

"I do not."

"Yes you do." Ray looked up from his containers and agreed with Kowalski.

"Iím fine."

"Youíre exhausted. After we eat. Youíre going home for a while."

"Iím fine. Iím not leaving Ben."

"Ben will insist upon it."

"He needs me."
"Iíll tell your Dad." Kowalski smugly smiled at his threat to Sara.

"Shut up and eat."

"I mean it Sara. Iím telling Benny weíre leaving after Ma brings Caroline here. You two can visit with Benny for a while and then Iím taking you home."

"Donít boss me."

"Iím not bossing you. Iím telling you whatís going to happen."

Sara looked at the two determined faces glaring back at her. She knew if she argued both of them would pitch a horrendous male hissy fit. She sighed and concentrated on her hamburger.

"See, you were hungry." Vecchio pushed an order of onion rings at her and motioned for her to eat.

"I guess."

"Did you get meÖ" Sara cut him off by handing Kowalski a chocolate shake. Both men cringed as Sara removed the top of her shake and began dipping some of Vecchioís fries in the thick chocolate ice cream. Both men muttered as Sara put the shake-covered fry in her mouth.

"Thatís sick." "Thatís so nasty."

Sara just grinned and continued dipping another fry.

~~~~~

Debi pulled her coat around her shoulders as she and Jacky got ready to leave Saraís apartment. Jack Montgomery had gone downstairs to pull Saraís car around to the front of the building. As the two of them rode down the elevator, Jacky noticed Debi was being unusually quiet.

"Spill it."

"What?"

"Donít act dumb. Tell me."

Debi lowered her eyes and stared at the floor.

"Itís Ren, isnít it?"

"Yeah."

"Have you talked to him?"

"Not really."

"Donít you think you should?"

"What good will it do? Heís still going to be in Chicago and Iím still going to be in Rock Hill."

"Why are you still in Rock Hill?"

"I have a business! I have family! You and Jack. My Mom and Dad. My Grandmother. I just canít hop on a plane and leave."

Jacky noticed how flustered Debi had become. Holding the elevator door open he allowed her to exit the car and he then walked beside her to the sidewalk.

"Why canít you just hop on a plane?"

"I just told you!"

"No, you just listed off family members. Sara lives here. Weíre her family and we see them all the time. We call; we get letters and pictures. Hell, I talk to her on the e-mail or instant messenger just about every night. I even bought her one of those little camera things to give to her for Christmas. So donít go on about all that."

Debi looked around for Mr. Montgomery hoping to avoid Jackyís question.

"Do you love him?"

Debi turned quickly and met the soft green eyes of the man that was like her brother. "What?!"

"You heard me."

"IÖ.IÖ."

"Do you or donít you? Itís not that hard of a question."

"Why am I even talking about this with you?! You canít even keep a steady girlfriend."

"Iím not the issue. I just havenít found the right girl yet. When I find her, I wonít be so quick to let her go. Youíve got the right guy all wrapped in red and stariní you in the face."

Debi felt the sting of tears well in her eyes. Jack Montgomery pulled Saraís green Cherokee to a halt in front of them. Jacky stepped forward and opened the back door for Debi. She sat quietly in the backseat as the three of them rode in silence to the hospital.

~~"Momma!" Caroline broke free from Francescaís hand and ran down the hall toward her mother.

"Hey Doodlebug!" Sara scooped Caroline into her arms and hugged her tightly. "I missed you last night. Were you a good girl for Grandma?"

"Yesím. I gots to sleep wif Theresa."

"What have you got?" Caroline held her picture up and proudly displayed it for her mother.

"I drawed it for Daddy."

"Itís the best picture Iíve ever seen. You ready to go see Daddy?" Sara smiled at Francesca and John as Caroline nodded her head. Ma looked around for Ray.

"Has Raymondo left, dear?"

"No maíam. Heís down the hall. He went to call the Bureau. He should be back in a minute."

"Okay, weíre going to wait in the waiting room while you two visit Benton. Come on children." Francesca and John walked hand in hand behind Rosa as they walked down the long hospital corridor.

"You ready Bug?"

"Uh-huh!"

Sara carried Caroline down the hall to Benís room. She pushed the door open and made sure Ben was awake. With a small nod he smiled at his wife and child.

"Thereís my two girls." Caroline leaned over in Saraís arms and reached her arms out for Ben.

"Daddy canít hold you, Bug. Heís still very sore. But you can sit beside him if you sit real still." Ben looked at Sara and frowned. She gave him a questioning look as she set Caroline down on the edge of the bed.

"How long has it been since youíve slept?" Ben knew his wife was exhausted. He also knew she wouldnít put her needs above his. Caroline squirmed slightly until she was sitting next to Ben with her head on his chest. Before Sara could answer, Caroline gave Ben the drawing she had made.

"I colored dis for you. Itís a bird wif big feet." Ben smiled and kissed Caroline on the forehead.

"Itís very beautiful. You have done a wonderful job. I bet we can hang it right over there on that wall so I can see it all the time."

"I missed you. Do you still Ďave an ouchie?" Sara could see the fatigue in Benís eyes. She knew it took all the strength he had to sit up and talk to Caroline.

"Iíll be fine sweetheart. Donít worry. Iíll be home soon."

"When?"

"Natalie says I should be home before Thanksgiving."

"Whenís Tanksgiviní?"

"Itís in about 5 weeks."

"Is dat a long time?"

"Not really. It will go by quickly." A soft knock was heard at the door. Ray Vecchio stepped inside and smiled at Caroline.

"Hey Unca Ray!" Caroline lifted her arms to be hugged and Ray responded to her request. Sara smiled at how quickly Caroline had taken to Ray. Ray kissed Caroline on the top of the head and then stepped toward the door again.

"Thereís someone out here that would like to see you." Ray opened the door and allowed Rosa to step in the room.

"Benton, darling. Iím sorry to interrupt your visit. How are you feeling?"

"Iím just a little tired Ma." Sara looked at Ben trying to see what he was really feeling. He was very good at hiding his emotions from everyone but Sara. She could read him like no one else. She could tell he was nearly worn out. The drugs were taking their effect.

"Caroline, give Daddy a kiss. Weíve got to let him get some sleep."
"I love you daddy." Ben brought Caroline in to a large hug. He ignored the pain and hugged her tightly to his chest.
"I love you. You take care of Mommy, okay?"

"íkay, I will."

Ray reached out and lifted Caroline off the bed. He cast a stern look at Sara and then handed Caroline to Ma.

"You ready to go see your Grandpa, little one? He and your Uncle Jacky are here."

"Yesím." Rosa smiled and left the room with Caroline. Sara felt the knot grow in her stomach. This was an ambush.

"You ready?" Ben looked confused as Ray talked to Sara.

"Ready for what?"

"Iím taking you home for a while so you can get some rest."

"I told you Iím fine."

"Sara." The two of them turned to face Ben.

"Yes, dear."

"Go home. Take Caroline and the two of you get some rest."

"Iím fine. Iím not leaving you."

"But you canít keep doing this night after night. Caroline needs you at home."

"IÖ.wonítÖ." Tears streamed down her face as she looked from Ben to Ray.

"Tell me what this is all about." Ray put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"What ifÖ.." Sara looked at the floor. Ben closed his eyes and sighed. He finally understood.

"Sara, Iím fine. Natalie has said that itís just a matter of healing now." Ray looked at Ben with questioning eyes. Ben reached out and took Saraís hand.
"Just because you left the hospital when your mother died, doesnít mean the same thing will happen to me, Sara. Your mother had breast cancer. You couldnít have known when she was going to die. You were just a little girl." Sara knew it was stupid of her but something inside her made her feel so terrified at the thought of leaving Ben at the hospital. Ray looked at Ben and read his face for what needed to be done.

"Sara, letís go. Iím taking you home. Jack and Jacky are here to check in on Ben. Frannie and John are going to be in and out all day. Theyíve been visiting Kowalski so theyíll check on Ben for you. Theyíll call you if anything happens. Iíll bring you right back here, I promise. You have to get some rest." Sara lowered her head. She knew it was pointless to argue. She simply nodded and kissed Ben gently on the lips. Ray took her by the hand and led her to the door. Ben and Ray exchanged looks and then both men smiled. As Sara left the room, Ben sighed and rested his head back on the pillow. His friend was back. He would take care of Sara. He would make sure she took care of her self. He would look out for his family. He was his family.

~~Ray held the door with one arm and a sleeping Caroline in the other as Sara walked slowly into the apartment.

"Oh Ray! I forgot about Rayís turtle. Iíve got to go feed his turtle."

"Iíll call Franny. She can go feed his turtle. Youíre going to sleep."

"ButÖ.."

"Donít start with me Sara. Iím not in the mood. Go take a hot shower and get in the bed. Donít make me have toÖÖ"

"Fine! You donít have to get nasty. Hand me my child. Iíll go put her down in her room. Dief will sleep with her and let you know when she wakes up. She must have been up half the night with Theresa. She was out like a light once you started the car."

"Yeah, you would have been too if you werenít so stubborn." Sara smiled slightly. She knew it was true. She held a limp and dozing Caroline in her arms and stared at Ray for a moment.

"What?"

"I just canít believe youíre here."

"I know. You donít know how hard it was to leave."

"You donít know how hard it was when you left."

"Yes I do."

"You do?"

"I had contacts at the bureau that would let me know how you were doing. Iím sorry."

"I missed you."

"I know. I missed you too."

"Promise me one thing?"

"Sure what?"

"Donít ever leave me again."

"I promise."

"Ben had a hard time too. There were nights that he would just stare out the window for hours." Ray ran his hand over the top of his head. He didnít know what to say. Leaning up and kissing him gently on the cheek, Sara smiled.

"Youíre here now. Thatís all that matters." She turned and carried Caroline into her room. Dief trotted at her heels. He jumped gracefully on the end of Carolineís bed and placed his head on his paws. Sara kissed her on the cheek and slipped her shoes off. Taking a deep breath she felt the soreness in her muscles. Ray was right; she was exhausted. She hadnít slept for any reasonable length of time since Ben had been shot.

She walked slowly back into the living room to where Ray was sitting on the sofa.

"Scooch over."

"Why donít you just go lie down in your room? You are so hard headed."

"Whatís your point?" Ray slid to the end of the couch. Sara pulled her coat off and flopped down beside him. Within minutes, Ray was flipping through the channels on their satellite system while Sara slept with her feet resting in his lap. He shook his head at her sleeping form and slowly unlaced her shoes. Pulling the throw blanket from the back of the couch, he covered her up and settled in to watch a little classic sports on the TV.

~~Jack Montgomery sat at the end of his son-in-laws bed. Ben had been asleep when Jack had come in to check on him, so he decided to stay and sit with him a while. Ben was his family now. He couldnít love him more if he were his own flesh. He and Sara had a loving relationship and Caroline seemed to make it stronger. Jack smiled as he thought of his grandchild. She was his pride and joy. The image of Sara, except for those piercing blue eyes. Caroline had Benís analytical mind but Saraís temperament. He chuckled at the memory of her on the farm watching the cows milling in the field. She knew she would probably get in trouble for lying down in that large mud puddle with her clothes on, but the temptation was too great. When Ben saw her lying on her back making a mud-angel he nearly choked. When he asked her why she would do such a thing she looked him in the face and grinned.

ĎWhy not?í ĎBecause now youíre all dirty. Didnít you realize you would get filthy?í ĎYessir, but Momma said dese were my play clothes and datís how I wanted to play. Would you like to play wif me?í Jack leaned back in the chair next to Benís bed and allowed himself to get lost in his memories. He and Sara sat on the porch an eavesdropped on the exchange going on near the side of the house. Sara was trying not to burst with laughter. The thought of her scotch-guarded husband lying in a mudhole was beyond her comprehension. Jack sighed as a smile crossed his lips. The sight of Ben and Caroline flat on their backs covered in mud and having the time of their lives was such a joy to see. Caroline could talk her Daddy into anything. Ben had been warned. Jack warned him himself. It was no oneís fault but his own.

Ben stirred and blinked slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lights.

"Afternoon, son. How are you feeling?" Ben made an effort to sit up but was motioned to relax. "Just rest. Those drugs Natalie has you on pack a real wallop."

"Is Sara here?"

"Sheís gone home." Ben nodded his head and smiled with relief.

"Good."
"Sheís worried about you. Ray had to practically drag her out of here. Can I get you anything?"

"No sir. Is Ray okay?"

"Which one?"

"Both I guess."

"This is going to get confusing. Ray Kowalski is doing fine. Natalie stopped by about an hour ago. She said he was mouthiní off."

"Ah, then he is doing better."

"Ray called the bureau from the waiting room. Heís got a meetiní with them tomorrow afternoon."

"Did the arrests go smoothly?"

"Harding was here last night. From what he knows, the charges are all air tight." Ben closed his eyes and offered up a prayer of thanks.

"Good."

"Meg stopped by a little while ago. Fran and John were here too."

"Iím sorry everyone has gone to so much trouble."

"Itís not trouble when you care about someone, you remember that son."

"Yes sir."

"Jacky and Debi are still here. I think Jacky has his eye on the pretty little blond nurse of yours."

"Blond nurse?"

"Donít worry, Jacky will let you know which one." The two laughed easily and Ben was starting to feel much better.

~~~~~~~

"Call him."

"Shut up."

"Call him."

"I donít have anything to say."

"How about ĎI love you Ren and Iím sorry Iím a dumbass.í?" Debi glared across the waiting room at Jacky.

"Bite me."

"Youíre a real smooth talker. No wonder you and Ren are in such crap."

"This is none of your business."

"Youíre my sisterís best friend. You practically lived at my house since Sara met you in the third grade. So donít go gettingí righteous on me. Climb down off that high horse and tell the man how you feel. Hell, Debi, you only get so many shots at love. Are you willing to lose him because youíre too proud to admit youíre scared?"

"Iím not scared."

"The hell youíre not."

"When did you become Dr. Ruth?"

"It donít take no genius to see youíre a fool. Tell him. The only thing stopping the two of you from being together is you."

"What if Ren doesnít want to see me anymore?" Debi lowered her head and pondered the possibility of what she had just asked.
"Iíve seen the way he looks at you. He loves you Deb-I. Tell him you feel the same way." Jacky looked long and hard at the woman that sat before him. He was never one to dispense advice but Debi was just acting stupid. "Talk to him dammit, before itís too late!"

Debi was startled by Jackyís passion on the subject, but she knew he was just telling her the truth. She nodded her head and walked slowly to the pay phone.

~~~~~~

Dief trotted quickly into the living room and stood in front of the television.

"Move." Ray leaned from side to side the best he could with out disturbing Sara as she slept beside him on the couch.

"Errrf."

"What?"

"Eeeerrrreeeef"

"Sheís up?"

"Erf." Ray leaned up slightly and continued to whisper to Dief.

"Do I need to go get her or will she come in here on her own?"

"Errrfrrrr."

"Do you think she will come in here and sit with me?"

"Errr." Diefenbaker walked swiftly back into the nursery. He emerged a moment later with a sleepy-eyed Caroline trailing behind him. Ray shifted Saraís feet from his lap and smiled sweetly at Caroline and the large bear she was holding. He leaned forward and sat on the edge of the couch. Ray held his arms out to the small child in hopes that she would sit on his lap. He was unsure at first how she would react to him. He figured he was a stranger to her. He had no idea that Sara and Ben had made sure she knew who her Uncle Ray was from the day she was born.

"Hey sleepy head." Caroline rubbed her face and brushed the tangled hair from her eyes. Ray smiled at the irritated face she made. *I know that face. Benny, makes that face. *

Caroline drug her bear along the floor until she was leaning on Rayís leg.

"Mommaís sweepiní?"

"Yeah, honey. Sheís still asleep. You want to come up here and sit with me for a while?"

"Uh-huh. I mean, yessir." Ray chuckled at the Fraser manners Caroline displayed.

"Come here, what is it that everyone calls you?" Ray scooped Caroline up and settled her snugly on his lap.

"Iím daddy and mommaís doodlebug."

"Thatís right, doodlebug. Youíre the prettiest doodlebug Iíve ever seen. Thatís a pretty big bear youíre carrying. Does he have a name?"

"You should know his name." Caroline gave him a shy but mischievous smile.
"I should?"

"Uh-huh, Momma says you gave Ďim to me when I was borned." Rayís mind flashed back to three and a half years before. He stood in a small gift shop in Las Vegas and picked out the largest stuffed bear they had. He had finally managed to steal a few hours away from the ever-present Iguana family members. His contact at the bureau met him in a small casino near the edge of town. He remembered the lump in his throat while he wrote the note to Sara.

"Will you tell me his name?"

"His name is Pwomise."

"Promise. Thatís a beautiful name."

"Unca Ray?"

"Yes baby?"

"Whenís my daddy cominí home?"

"Youíre daddyís got to stay in the hospital for a while. Heís got to stay there while the doctors make him all better."

"Natalie is a doctor."
"Yes she is."

"She and Unca Rah kiss." Caroline giggled at the thought of kissing. Ray hugged her close to his chest as she laughed.

"They kiss, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Kiss like this?" Ray playfully kissed Carolineís neck until she was in a fit of giggles.
"Dat tickles!"

Realizing Sara was still trying to sleep, Ray released Caroline and put his finger to his lips.

"Shhh, we donít want to wake your mom."

"Mommaís tired."

"Yeah, sheís really tired. We better be quiet so she can sleep."

"Will you come in my room and pway wif me?"

"Sure, can Dief play too?"

"Dief always pways wif me." Caroline hopped off Rayís lap and grabbed Diefenbaker by the tail. Ray made sure Sara was still sleeping and followed the three and half year old and a deaf wolf to play.

~~"Canadian Consulate, Constable Turnbull speaking, how may I help you?" Debi took a deep breath and tried not to choke on her words.

"Ren, itís me."

"Debi? Are you okay? Is Constable FraserÖ.."

"Ren, can we meet for supper?" Turnbullís heart sank to his stomach. He could tell by her tone that she wanted to talk to him.

"Of course. Would you like for me to prepare us something here and the consulate?"

"That sounds great. Iíll see you about six tonight."

"Iím counting the minutes." As Debi hung up the phone, she knew that he was telling her the truth. Dragging her hand along her neck she walked slowly back to the waiting room and took a seat next to Jacky.

"Well?"

"Weíre having supper."

"And?"
"Will you help me pack my stuff?" Jacky smiled and put his arm around Debi in a warm hug.

~~~~~~~~~

Sara stretched her sore muscles and looked around trying to clear the haze of sleep from her mind. She threw the blanket from her legs and stood in the middle of her living room looking around for Ray and Caroline. She walked toward Carolineís room and heard the sound of Caroline laughing.

Tears glistened in Saraís eyes as she stood unnoticed in the doorway. The sight before her was something she had dreamed of for three and a half years. Caroline lay on her stomach on the floor as she buttoned a ball gown onto her Barbie doll. Her hair was put in several ponytails in varying positions on her head. Hairbows and small clips were used to hold the errant hair in place. She wore her favorite purple socks with the fish on them that matched the bright yellow belt she had looped twice around her waist. Ray sat crossed legged in front of her holding a stuffed duck and a Ken doll. His nearly bald scalp was adorned with a daisy-covered hair-band and three Mickey Mouse stickers. To complete his look, Caroline had draped her Cinderella Girl powder blue feather boa around his neck. Sara stood and listened to the two of them play.

"Barbieís goiní to a party. She aní Ken are goiní on a date."

"What kind of party are they going to? A birthday party?"

"No."

"A pajama party?"

"No."

"A Christmas party?"

"No, theyís goiní to a dipomatic party."
"A diplomatic party?"

"Uh-huh."

* Yep, youíre Bennyís kid. *

"How are they going to get to the party?"

"Theyís goiní in Barbieís car."

"Whereís Kenís car?"

"He donít have a car."

"How come he doesnít have a car?"

"He donít have any money."

"Does he have a job?"

"Uh, I donít know."

"Maybe we should get him a job. What kind of job could he have?"

"Heís a nurse."

"A nurse?! Canít he be something cool like a policeman?" Caroline giggled at Rayís suggestion and scooted off her stomach to sit upright again. Clutching her Barbie tightly in her hand she lifted her head to see her mother.

"Momma!" Ray spun around and felt the blush creep up his cheeks.

"How long have you been there?"

"A while. I love the look. It suits you."

"I made Unca Ray purtty."

"You sure did. Iíve never seen him look better."

~~Debi paid the cab driver and turned to face the Canadian Consulate. She took a deep breath and walked slowly toward the door. *Here goes. I sure hope you know what youíre doing. * Before she had a chance to knock, the large wooden door opened.

"Youíre here." Turnbull stood beaming in the doorframe. Debi felt her heart skip at the sight of him. He was dressed in his uniform and an apron. * My God heís handsome. *

"Hey."

"Please come in. Let me take your coat." Turnbull gently took Debi by the hand and led her into the foyer of the Consulate. The minute their hands met, Debi felt a surge of electricity run through her body.

"IÖuhÖ.I wantedÖÖwell, I think we should talk aboutÖÖ" Debi fumbled over her words. She looked up into his large blue eyes and lost her train of thought.

"Yes?"

"IÖuhÖ.." Turnbull cocked his head in anticipation of what she had to say. He had made such an effort to control his emotions. He wanted to squeal in delight when she called. He wanted to run down the steps when she pulled up in the cab and now he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and kiss her silly. Nothing could have prepared his emotions for what happened next. Not knowing what to say or how to say it, Debi decided to show Ren how she felt. Before logic could rule out, she took Ren by the neck and pulled him into a passionate kiss. Debi felt his muscles stiffen and then relax as she deepened the kiss. Slowly flicking her tongue across his bottom lip, Debi searched for entry to his mouth. Reacting in kind, Turnbull probed her mouth as he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close to him. Debi threaded her fingers through the back of his short blond hair as he pulled her from her feet and into his arms. A small moan escaped her lips as she wrapped her legs around his waist. Turnbull held her in his arms for what seemed like forever before he broke the kiss. What happened next would still amaze Debi for years to come.

"Debi?"

Trying to catch her breath, she gasped her reply.

"Yes, Ren?"

"Will you marry me?"

Silence seemed to burst forth. The only sound Debi could hear was the beating of her own heart in her ears. Had she heard him correctly?

"Debi?" Ren could feel his palms start to sweat. The lump that had formed in his throat threatened to cut off his air supply. Debiís head was spinning and for once her heart answered before her head.

"Yes!"

For once in his life, Ren let the meal he was preparing burn to a crisp.

~~~~~~~

"Go take a shower."

"Will you be okay?"

"Iíve got two nephews and a niece that live under my roof. I think I can handle one three year old kid."

"Caroline, donít hurt your Uncle Ray. And no haircuts."

"Momma you silly. He ainít gots no hair."

"Hey!" Ray reached over and tickled Caroline on the stomach.

Sara smiled and left the two of them playing in Carolineís room. The thought of a nice hot shower was looking better and better as Sara peeled away the clothes she had been wearing for the past two days. Leaving the dirty clothes in a heap on the floor, she stepped into the steaming shower. Resting her hands on the back wall of the shower she allowed the water to flow over her knotted muscles. Feeling the stress ease, she began to cry.

She cried tears of worry for Ben and Ray Kowalski. She cried tears of a motherís love for her daughter and of regret for what she had to go through while her daddy was at the hospital. She also cried tears of joy and love for Ray. He was finally home where he belonged. The warm soothing water flowed down her back and legs as she leaned against the cool tile wall.

"Sara?" A small knock brought Sara back to reality. She looked at the clock on the wall and was startled at the time. Had she really been standing there for an hour? Ray knocked softly again on the bathroom door.

"Sara? Are you alright?"

Sara stepped out of the shower and pulled Benís robe around her. She opened the door and wanted to offer an explanation. But seeing the makeup still running on her face and the swelling around her eyes, Ray didnít need one.

"Come here." Ray pulled her to him and hugged her tightly. "Iím so sorry. I should have known this was all too much for you." Sara snuggled into his chest and felt the tears flow once again.

"I donít want Caroline to get upset. She doesnít need to see me like this."

"Dief is with her in the kitchen. I made her a bowl of soup. Sheís fine."

"Ray, Iíve never seen him like that. He looked soÖ.."

"I know honey. Unfortunately I have seen Ben like that. You never get used to it. But heís going to be fine. Natalie told us that heís recovering quickly."

"I just thought that I was going toÖÖlose him." Sara was afraid to utter the words for fear they would come true.

"I know, I know. Shhhh, just calm down. This time, actually take a shower okay. It will make you feel better. Iíll take care of the doodlebug. Weíll be fine. Hey, with Dief helping me I canít do any permanent damage, right?" Ray held her face in his hands and gave Sara his best charming smile. She couldnít help but laugh. She kissed his cheek and stepped back into her bathroom. Ray shook his head and walked back into the kitchen to check on Caroline.

~~"I want to see him."

"You donít need to be moving around on that leg, Ray."

"Iím fine. Iíve been shot before. Youíre the doctor right? If anything happens on the walk to Frazeís room, you can fix me."

"Iíll fix you alright." Natalie glared at him as he pleaded his case.

"Heís my friend Nat. I want to see him." Natalie sighed and lowered her gaze from his puppy-dog eyes.

"Fine, let me go check on him and see if heís awake. I left Jack with him about an hour ago and the medication was making Ben groggy."
"Oh sure, give him the good stuff."

"Bite me."

"Any time babe." Natalie smiled to herself as she left Ray grinning from ear to ear. She walked quickly down the corridor to Benís room. Jack and Jacky were sitting at the small table by the window playing a game of cards while Ben slept.

"Howís he doing?" Natalie grabbed his chart from the wall and began to look over the nurseís notes. She checked the monitors and his vitals.

"Heís been in and out for Ďbout thirty minutes. Heís been talking a lot in his sleep too."

"Anything good?"

"Not really. Mostly Inuit stories. He asks for Sara Ďbout every ten minutes. Awhile ago he was haviní some kind of argument. We finally figured out it was with Diefenbaker."

Jacky chuckled as Jack played another card.

"Ray wants to see him."

"Howís he doing? The last time we checked he was complaining about the food."

"Yeah, he seems to recovering just fine." Natalie made a notation on Benís chart and placed a hand on his forehead. "Iím not going to wake him. Iíll tell Ray he has to wait a while."

"Can he just sit in here with us?" Jack Montgomery knew that poor Ray was going stir crazy in that bed.

"I donít know. That leg needs to stay elevated."

"We could prop it up on a few pillows." Jacky looked hopeful at Natalie. She knew it would probably do Ray a world of good emotionally. Physically, she couldnít think of a real reason why not.

"Okay, but if he starts to get tired or too excited, you call me okay. Heís still weak."

"We promise. Iíll go help you get him. Daddy, deal another hand."

~~~~~~

Ren pulled away from Debiís embrace. She was shocked to see his complexion pale and a look of horror flash across his face.

"Ren? Whatís the matter?"

"Oh dear! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" Ren placed his hand over his mouth and nearly whimpered.

"What?!"

"IÖ..oh dearÖ..IÖ.."

"What?! Just spill it!"

"I canít believe my rudeness. Iím so embarrassed. I must apologize."

"For what, Ren? What did you do?"

"Itís not what I did, itís what I didnít do. I canít believe I could be soÖsoÖ.oh dear."

"Wha-aat?!"

"I negated to ask your father for permission to ask for your hand."
"Oh Jesus, Ren." Turnbull failed to notice her flat tone and eye rolling.

"I know! I canít believe how brazen I have become since coming to this country, but to totally overlook a common sign of respect! Iím just mortified."

"Ren, Iím sure my parents will understand. Letís just call them."

"This isnít something I can do on the phone. I have to speak with your father in person. When do you plan on returning home?"

"Jacky and I are going back at the end of the week now that Ben is doing better. But I have a confession to make." Debi tucked her head. "I didnít know this conversation would take the turn that it did. However, I did ask Jacky to help me move."

"Move?"

"Yep, move. HereÖ.as in find an apartment near the consulate so I could be with you." Turnbull let out a sound that could be heard for blocks. He pulled Debi into his arms and spun her around.

"Looks like weíll be looking for an apartment together!!"

~~Jacky helped Ray Kowalski in to a chair in Benís room. After a little moaning and complaining, Ray was finally settled with his leg propped up on two very large pillows. Fraser was still asleep because of the medication, so Jacky, Ray and Jack played cards and talked quietly as the afternoon wore on.

"You doiní alright?" Jack Montgomery looked over his pair of aces at a pale looking Ray.

"Yeah, Iím okay. I jusí wish Fraser would wake up."

"Heíll wake up soon. Itís that medication. It really knocks the boy out. No wonder he donít drink. I bet heíd be knee walkiní after two beers."

"Yeah, probably so. But it would be a sight to see. A drunk Mountie. Thatíd curl Saraís hair."

"Knowiní her sheíd screw around with him and crap." The two men looked at Jacky and grinned. He was obviously speaking from experience.

"She screw around with you?"

"Me?"

"Nah, the wall over there. Yeah you." Ray leaned forward a little and eyed Jacky. "Tell."

"Yeah, son, tell."

Jacky swallowed hard and shuffled his cards around in his hand.

"Well, one time I was over at Tom Mitchellís. His folks were out of town and he threw a party. Everybody was there." Jackyís expression changed as he remembered a night so long ago. "Well, Sara walked inÖ..or so Iím told."

"That far gone huh?"

"Apparently so. Anyway, from what I was told and from the picturesÖ."

"Pictures?!" Ray tried not to laugh, the pain was getting worse.

"Yeah, it seems Sara got some of Tomís momís clothes. You remember how big that woman was?"

"Yeah, son, she was real healthy."

"Anyway, it seems Sara dressed me up in one of her Sunday dresses and a hat and paraded me around the party. She had me posiní with all the other guys and stuff like that. ThenÖwellÖ.."

"What?! Whatíd she do?" Ray was in a constant fit of pain and laughter.

"She umÖ.wellÖ."

"What?! What?!" Ray just knew heíd probably wet his pants.

"She um took me to a Ď7-11í and dropped me off."

"I wonder how come I never heard about all this." Jack eyed his now grown son.

"Leigh Ann Mason stopped to get gas after her shift at Bi-lo and drove me back to her sisters. All I know is I woke up with lipstick on my face and a headache. When Leigh Ann told me it wasnít her lipstick but mine, I knew Sara had shÖ..uhÖ.screwed me over." Ray slumped over and held his side with one hand and his leg with the other as he laughed himself to tears.

"Whatíd youÖ<snort>Ö.do to her when you got home?"

"What could I do? She had a stupid Polaroid. She had a least three packs of film of me. The last one was of me and the store clerk hugginí. She dared me to touch her. She said sheíd run a full page ad in the Herald if I laid a finger on her."

"That must have been the time you decided her room needed paintiní." Jack began to nod his head in understanding.

"Yessir." Jacky lowered his head and grinned.

"You mean you let her get away with it?! You never got even?!"

"Hell no!"

"Jacky!"

"Sorry Daddy. She got hers, donít you worry. She was at Melanie Cramerís one night. She was home on fall break and I was a junior in high school. Melanieís little sister Stacy liked me, so when she found out Sara was over at her house drunk off her assÖ."

"Jacky, Iím not goiní to tell you again. I can still pop that mouth of yours."

"Yessir, sorry. Anyway, she called and I snuck in through the back. Well, there they all wereÖ.Sara, Melanie and four other girls wearing nothiní but their underwear. If I wasnít so determined to get Sara back, I would have been in heaven. But I was on mission. So, I got Stacy to snap a couple Polaroidís of Sara in her Mickey Mouse bra and panties. The next day, there wasnít a car in the Wal-Mart parking lot that didnít have a flyer with Saraís picture on it. It had Sara in the middle and an ad for the Leather and Lace Lounge across the bottom. For good measure I put Saraís cell phone number on the top with the caption, ĎTalk to the ladies of L & L. Just call 555-4657 and ask for Bambi.í For three days she just thought she was getting wrong numbers. Then Debi found a poster on the bulletin board at the grocery store."

"I suppose that was when you got that black eye from the horse feeder."

"Yep, Sara walked out to the barn and cold cocked me. It was worth it. I laughed for weeks over that one. She had to change her cell phone and everyone at the Holler called her Bambi for six months."

Ray wiped the tears away from his face as he laughed. Jack shook his head and wondered if their mother had been alive would his children have turned out this way.

"Sara never told me that." All three men turned and faced Ben. He was smiling and trying to sit up in the bed.

"Hey, let me help." Jacky sprang to his feet and helped Ben position the pillows so he would be more comfortable.

"Hey Fraze! You doiní okay?"

"Iím feeling much better, thank you kindly Ray. And you?"

"Iím fine. Just sore is all. Nat says the leg will be good as new in no time."

"Thatís good, Ray. Has Sara returned?"

"Ray called a while ago, son. Sheís still sleeping. Theyíll drop Caroline off at Rosaís on their way back here."

"Good." Ben smiled at the thought of Sara finally getting some rest. He knew Ray would look out for her. He knew he would make her get some rest. Even Ray Kowalski didnít have as much pull with Sara as Ray Vecchio did. They had been through too much together. He wondered what things would be like now with both Rayís in their lives. He smiled at the possibilities.

~~"Bug, are you ready?!"

"No!"

"Excuse me?!"

"No maíam! Dief wonít get off my coat." Sara shook her head and gave Ray Vecchio a withering look.

"She must have changed clothes while I was asleep." Sara walked into Carolineís room to find that she had indeed changed clothes. Dief was lying on top of her coat in order to give Sara time to make her dress more appropriately.

"Caroline, you canít wear that. Itís too cold outside."

"Iís gonna wear a coat."

"That doesnít matter. You canít wear your fairy dress. Itís sleeveless and too short."

"But Iís got my boots on."

"Thatís still not enough. Come on, letís put on something warmer."

"But Iís purtty now."

"I know baby. Why donít you wear your overalls?"

"Like Pawpawís?"

"Yep, just like Pawpawís. Go pick out a shirt to wear with them. A long sleeve shirt." Caroline scooted over to her dresser drawer and selected a red and white striped shirt.

"Have you got socks on?" Caroline shook her head and grinned. "Get a pair of red socks."

"Red?"

"Yes maíam. Like Daddyís uniform." Caroline returned to her motherís knee with socks and shirt in hand. Ray stood in the doorframe and watched as Sara transformed the little fairy in to the image of a farm girl.

"You look like your ready to go."

Sara just barely got Carolineís arm into a red flannel shirt before Caroline took off across the room and leapt into Rayís arms.

"What about shoes? Your mom gonna let you go out without shoes?" Caroline giggled her reply.

"No sir."

"You want your brown boots or your green tennis shoes."

"Boots!"

Sara tied her shoes and straightened her hair while Caroline rested in Rayís arms.

"You ready to go to Grandmaís?"

"Ray, you put her coat on while I pack her a change of clothes. Caroline, do you want to take Promise?" Caroline nodded and took the bear Ray had given her into her arms.

Dief lobbed his tongue out of the side of his mouth as if to smile at his hard work. *What would they do without me?*

"Are we finally ready?"

"I think so."

"You ready Bug?"

"Ready!"

With a sigh and a smile Sara took Rayís free hand.

"Good, letís go."

Sara tossed the keys to Ray while she buckled Caroline into the child seat. The drive to Octavia Lane was a familiar one. It seemed like only yesterday, Ray was picking Fraser up for work. As they pulled into the drive, Ray stared up at the old house. His house. Sara saw the look on his face and took his hand.

"You havenít been here yet, have you?" Ray didnít take his eyes off the house as he whispered his reply.

"No."

"Címon Ray. Letís get you home."

"Home." Ray looked at Sara as the tears welled up in his eyes. It had been so long, too long. Before he could think another thought. Rosa appeared on the front porch. Ray beamed with excitement. They had a somewhat rushed reunion at the hospital. But this, this made him feel like he was really home.

"You need any help?"

Sara watched as Rayís face began to glow with that old charm.

"Weíre fine. You go ahead."

Ray ran from the jeep and leapt up the front steps into his motherís arms. She wept and prayed aloud in Italian as she held him close to her.
"I know Ma. Itís good to be home." Hearing their Mother, Franny and Maria stepped out onto the porch to see what was going on.
"Ray!" Maria grabbed Ray once again and hugged him. This was what a reunion was supposed to feel like. Francesca stood back as Maria and Ray hugged. Then her eyes met Rayís. Ray stood tall and held his arms out for his favorite most annoying sister.

"I really missed you Franny." Francesca burst into tears as she rushed toward Ray. Sara and Caroline made their way up the front walk and stood and watched the tears of joy coming from the Vecchio family.

"Whyís they cryiní?"

"Theyíre happy."

"But theyís cryiní."

"I know sweetie. Itís okay. Itís a good type of crying."

"Likes when you cry at the TV."

"Yes, like when I cry at the TV."

Francesca gasped for air as she wept in Rayís arms. He gently rubbed her back as he too cried. Rosa smiled and crossed herself at the sight of her family together again.

"Ray, thereís so much I have to tell you. Iíve missed you so much. John and meÖ."

"Shhh, calm down Franny, weíve got time. Iím not going anywhere for a long, long time."

Francesca stood back and held on to his sides. Looking at him, she felt like jumping into the air and screaming for joy. Sara and Caroline stood on the bottom step and watched the tear-filled reunion. Caroline sneezed and caught Rosaís attention.

"Oh goodness. My little darling is going to catch her death. Letís go inside children. Iíve got dinner on the stove."

"I canít stay Ma. Iím going back to the hospital to be with Ben."

"Your father called about an hour ago. He didnít want to call your place because you were sleeping. Benton is awake and Ray has been moved to his room to be with him."

"Great. That will do both of them some good. Franny, is John coming over after filming?"

"He said that his scenes should wrap about five. He should be here around six thirty. He mentioned a quick interview he had to do with People."

"Heís getting hot. You better watch the groupies." The women laughed as Ray sat down in his old recliner. His body responded to the familiar surroundings. He hadnít felt this relaxed in three years. His eyes then fell on Francesca again. She was different. More mature than he remembered. Her whole demeanor had changed as well as her wardrobe.

The tight leather skirt had been replaced with a long black suede skirt and stylish boots. The skintight t-shirt was now replaced with a Donna Karan silk blouse. Her make-up was softer and her hair was shorter. She looked fabulous. Even if he did have to admit it. Then his eye caught the ring on her hand. *Oh God!*

Ray reached out and grabbed her by her left hand as she passed.

"Franny?" Looking down at the large diamond that graced her ring finger she smiled.

"John and I have been engaged for about a year now."

"When are you going to get married?"

Rosa smiled and patted Francesca on the arm.

"I guess you and John can finally set a date now."

"Huh? You two havenít set a date yet?"

Sara sat next to Maria on the couch and took Carolineís coat. Caroline ran up the steps and into the playroom. Dief followed closely behind. Sara noticed the lost look on Rayís face as Franny sat on the arm of his recliner.

"No Ray, we havenít set a date yet."

"What are you waiting on?" In a soft and loving tone, Francesca gave Ray his answer.

"You. I was waiting on you. I canít get married unless you give me away, right?" Ray thought his heart would burst from his chest. How had he stayed away from this family for so long? As he looked into his sisterís eyes he felt the tears flow down his cheeks.

"Right." Rosa wanted to drop to her knees and thank the good Lord for all her blessings. She had her precious Raymondo back and her daughter was the happiest she had been in years. Then her gaze fell on Sara. The dark circles were still visible under her make-up. The weakness and worry in her eyes betrayed the smile on her face. Rosa could tell she was a breath away from breaking down. Sara was doing her best to be strong and to be happy for Ray and his family. But her only thoughts were of her Ben. Her mind knew that his condition was improved and he would recover. But her heart wouldnít heal until his was back home where he belonged. The thought of her Ben in the hospital was something Sara couldnít bear.

"Sara darling. Have you eaten?"

Sara jolted at her name being called. She quickly schooled her features and smiled at Rosa.

"Yes maíam. Ray fixed me some soup."

"Soup isnít very filling. Why donít you stay long enough to have dinner? Tony will be home with the children soon. Hockey should be just about winding down. John could drive you back to the hospital when he gets here."

"No thanks Ma. I think I better get on back. I really need to be with Ben." Sara stood up and called for Caroline and Dief to come down stairs.

"Iíll take you back to the hospital."

"No Ray. You stay here. You need to be with your family. Iím fine." Sara knelt down as Caroline came storming down the stairs.

"Are you goiní ta go see Daddy?"

"Yes maíam. You be good for Grandma. Listen to your Aunts and your Uncle Ray."

"I will."

"Thatís my good Bug. Give Momma a kiss." Caroline wrapped her arms tightly around her motherís neck and squeezed with every ounce of strength her three-and-a-half-year-old body could muster.

"I love you."

"I loves you."

"Dief, donít let her get into Frannyís make-up again."

"Eerrf."

"Hey, youíre the one that looked like a arctic wolf in drag."

"Rrrrfff."

"Yeah well, itís your coat not mine."

Ray smiled as Sara argued with Dief. She was as bad as Benny. Rosa kissed and hugged Sara as she walked into the foyer. She was still offering rides from Maria and Francesca as Sara descended the front steps and started her jeep.

"Iíll call and check on Doodlebug in about an hour."

"Sheíll be fine. Give Benton our love."

"Always."

Sara sighed as she pulled out into the street. She was grateful for the time alone. She turned on the CD changer and let the music lift her away.

As she turned at the stoplight, "Wheat Kings" by the Tragically Hip was blaring from the speakers.

~~Ray Kowalski looked at Ben and gave him a sheepish smile. Jack could tell the two men had some things they needed to discuss.

"Jacky, letís go get something to eat."

"Uh, sure daddy. I could eat."

"Yeah, thatís a surprise." Jacky and Jack help Ray scoot closer to Benís bed before the two men left them alone.

"Hey Benton Buddy. You sure youíre okay?"

"Yes, Ray. Iím feeling better. The medication seems to make me feel worse than I actually am."

"Yeah well, you never did have any tolerance for stuff like that." The silence hung in the air for what seemed like an hour. The two men just looked at each other. Ben could tell Ray had something on his mind and he had a pretty good idea what.

"Ray."

"Yeah, Frase?"

"Youíll like him." Ray lowered his head and nodded.

"Sure, I know."

"Just try. You know how Sara and I feel about you. Caroline adores you. You are part of our family."

"ButÖ.."

"There are no buts Ray. You are my best friend."

"But heís your best friend. How can you haveÖ.."

"How can I not?" Ray looked at the pale honest face staring back at him with all the sincerity in the world. He knew Ben wasnít just trying to make him feel better. He knew Ben was telling the truth.

"I just donít want taÖ.I meanÖyou and SaraÖ.."

"We love you Ray. We wonít let you go." Ray sighed and felt a hand reach out and touch his arm. He was so engrossed in his emotions he didnít notice Sara enter the room. He looked up to see the tears streaming down her face.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"We was just talking."

"Youíre a moron sometimes, you know that?"

Ben cocked his head and smiled at Sara. She was tired and her nerves had just about all they could stand. She wasnít pulling any punches.

"Yer sweet talk is giviní me sugar shock."

"Weíve gone over this before. I love you. Ben loves you. Caroline loves you. You canít be more loved if you came dipped in chocolate with diamonds shoved up yourÖ.."

"Sara!"

Saraís head snapped up and looked at the amused face of her husband. Seeing him smile made her heart skip.

"Are you okay?" The question was small and filled with emotion. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked Ben in the eyes to read his thoughts.

"Iím going to be fine." Looking for any sign of deception, she searched his face.

"Donít spare my feelings. I canít handle that right now. Tell me if youíre feeling better."

"Iím feeling much better, now that youíre here." Sara leaned forward and placed her head on his shoulder. Ben gently stroked her hair as she cried tears of joy and relief on his shoulder.

"You guys need ta cut that out." Sara looked at and smiled as Ray wiped the tears away from his face with his fists.

"Cry baby."

"Shut up." Sara leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

"You doiní okay? Donít lie to me either. Iím hanging by a thread here. I could snap at any moment."

"Iím okay. I promise. It just hurts like hell. But that kinda goes with haviní a bullet put in yer leg."

"Sara, whereís Ray?"

"Heís at home."

"His home?"

"Yeah, you should have seen his face. Franny told him about the engagement. It looks like weíre going to be planning a wedding soon."

"That should be interesting. With Johnís popularity it should prove interesting."

"I wonder how Ray will take the paparazzi trying to get at his sister?"

"Oh dear."

~~~~~~

"Ren, you need to calm down. You are working yourself into a tizzy. Itís going to be okay. My folks arenít uptight about that kinda thing."

"Iím just so mortified at my behavior. I just canít apologize enough."

"Hey, itís okay. We can call them now and then you can talk to them face to face when you go home with me on Friday. Besides, this was spur of the moment. Theyíll understand. I mean we donít even have a ring." Turnbull lowered his head and blushed.

"What?" Debi gave his a suspicious look. "Ren, what?"

"Please wait here for a moment." Turnbull ran to the back of the consulate into the small office he used. He pulled a small navy box from the bottom drawer and held it in the palm of his hand. He closed his eyes and offered a small prayer of thanks. Walking quickly down the hall, he stopped in front of Debi and took her by the hand.

"IÖwell, I never stopped loving you. I prayed that God would somehow bring us back together so I could give you this." Debi felt the tears pooling in her eyes as Turnbull dropped to one knee and offered her the small velvet box.

"Deborah Renee Johnson, will you give me the honor of being my wife?" Opening the small box, Debi saw the most beautiful ring she could have ever imagined. The square stone was flanked with two triangular diamonds that seemed to sparkle with all the light in the world.

"Yes."

Turnbull slipped the ring on her finger and kissed her gently on the lips.

"I think we should go call our parents now."

"Thatís a good idea. Your Mom will freak."

"My mother loves you."

"Iíll believe that when pigs fly."

"Debi I assure you she thinks youíre great."

"Iím stealing her baby boy away. I could tell how she felt when we went to your house for Easter."

"Itís just your imagination. Weíre all going to love being a family." Debi smiled and let Ren have his moment. She was just grateful that his parents lived in Ottawa. *Distance does make the heart grow fonder. *

~~"Tell me about you and John." Ray and Francesca sat in the den alone while Rosa and Maria worked in the kitchen.
"Heís wonderful."

"I knew you two were serious but I didnít know he proposed. When did this all happen?"

Ray reclined his favorite chair as Franny propped her feet up on the end of the coffee table.

"Well, we were in New YorkÖ"

"You were in New York!? What for?!" Ray couldnít get over how his flaky little sister was so nonchalant about going to New York.

"John was doing Rosie and I decided to go with him."

"Rosie?! Rosie OíDonnell?!" Francesca grinned at the excitement on Rayís face.

"Yeah, he was doing press for the show. It was new and she knew him from when he was on Broadway. Anyway, she was asking him about his personal life and he mentioned me. Rosie made one of her staffers get me from the green room and bring me on stage. She asked John how serious it was andÖ.hey, we got it on tape. You wanna see it. Ma taped it."

"Nah, you just tell me." Ray was still in shock over the fact that his baby sister was on the Rosie OíDonnell show and it seemed like no big deal to her.

"Okay, anyway. She asked John if it was serious and he told her that he planned on spending the rest of his life with me. Well, everyone was Ďooing and ahingí and I just thought he was saying that because she put him on the spot. Well, after the show, he took me to the top of the Empire State building and proposed. You know, like in that movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan."

"I didnít think he proposed?"

"Whatever. It was so romantic. He had talked to Ma and even to Ben since you werenít here."

"I bet Benny turned eighty shades of red."

"From what Sara told me, Ben was really rough on him."

"What?! Benny?! The polite-to-a-fault Mountie?"

"Yep, Sara said he was as serious as she had ever seen him. She said Ben explained to him how I was like a sister to him and that my happiness was the most important factor and how that if John ever had thoughts of marriage being something that could be entered into lightly that he would box his nose."

"Ears."

"Whatever. Anyway, Ma and Ben didnít scare him off, so here we are."

"So whenís the date?"

"I donít know. John knew that I wouldnít even think about getting married without you here." Ray felt his heart sink to his stomach.

"I love you, Franny. You know that donít you?" Francesca smiled at her brother. Before he left he would never had been so open with his emotions. Sure he was over protective and controlling, but now he seemed to realize what his family really meant to him.

"So now you can set a date."

"Yep. But itís not going to be easy planning this thing."

"Why not? People get married everyday."

"Itís not that simple anymore. A lot of things have changed since you left. John Chamberlain was last yearís Sexiest Man Alive in People Magazine. We canít even walk down the street without someone asking for autographs or pictures. Heís been offered movie scripts and other television shows."

"I caught his show a few times in Vegas. It made me miss everyone too much so I couldnít really watch it."

"íChicago Emergencyí is one of the highest rated shows on television. Thatís why we have to take extra precautions when we plan the wedding. Security is going to be first priority. There are some weirdoís out there. Some hair bottle sent him letters saying she was carrying his love child given to her by the aliens. Talk about your fruit pie."

"Cake."

"Nah, Maís just bout got dinner ready." Ray sighed and shook his head. *God how I missed her. *

~~"Whew! Itís getting colder out there. I donít suppose thereís a good looking brunette around here to warm these old bones?"

Ray and Francesca looked up the see John pulling his off coat in the foyer.

"John!" Francesca ran to greet him with a kiss. Pulling back and laughing, she wiped her hand down his cheek.

"Layiní it on a little thick these days." John tucked his head and wiped his palm across his cheek. Staring at the make-up staining his hands, he cringed.

"Oh dear Lord! I must look like a blasted girl! I knew that make up artist had it in for me. Thatís the last time I let People pick the shoot."

"Well, itís a little unnerving to have my fiancť have better foundation than I do."

"Oh youíre a riot." John tickled her sides as they walked into the den.

"Ray! You finally made it home I see." Standing, Ray shook Johnís hand and ended up in a warm hug.

"Youíve been greatly missed. Itís good to have you back."

"I hear congratulations are in order."

"AhÖYes. I hope you approve." Johnís expression changed to one of nervousness. He loved Franny dearly and knew the approval of her family was important.

"Of course. I havenít seen Franny this happy in years. Just donít hurt her. You hurt her, Iíll kill you."

"Ray!"

"Understood."

"Hey, thatís all I have to say. Iím sure Fraser covered all the bases for me."

"You can count on that. Who knew Canadians could be so brutal?" Ray returned to his beloved recliner while Franny and John sat close on the couch. Hearing familiar footsteps, John braced himself.

"John!" Carolineís small frame launched into the air and landed squarely in his lap.

"Hello beautiful! What have you been up to today?"

"Iís been playiní with Dief and Theresa and Angelo and Anthony. Uncle Tony broughts me gum. See?" Caroline proceeded to open her mouth and display her chewing gum to John and Francesca.

"Wow, that is a treat. Be careful not to swallow it."

"Iís wonít. Daddy says if I swallows it, it could block up my uh, my uh, somethings."

"We donít want to block up our somethings, do we?" Caroline shook her head and smiled at John.

"Are you gonna be on da TV today?"

"Not tonight love. Besides, I know for a fact your Mom doesnít let you watch my show."

"She lets me watch you when yous on in da daytime."

"I see. Sorry love, Iím not on TV today."

"Okay." Without warning, Caroline stood on the edge of the couch and launched herself at Ray.

"Umf!"

"Hey." Caroline smiled brightly up at Ray as he grimaced from the pain in his crotch.

"You could killa guy like that."

"Huh?"

"Nothing. How come youíre not upstairs playing with your cousins?"

"I was firsty."

"Did Ma get you a drink?"

"Yessir. Grandma gave me some Kool-aid."

"Since when does Ma make Kool-aid?" Ray looked to Franny.

"Since the Fraserís practically live off the stuff."

Ray smiled at the thought of Ben and his family spending Sunday afternoons at the Vecchio house. Then his smile faded at the thought of all he had missed. Francesca could see the myriad of emotions flash across his face. She shared a look with John. He threaded his fingers through hers and kissed her cheek. It would take them all some time to adjust.

~~"Are you sure youíre alright?" Sara still had a fearful look in her eye.

Ben took Saraís hand in his and pulled her to a seated position on the edge of his hospital bed.

"Iím fine sweetheart."

"Donít lie to me. I can always tell when youíre trying to make things easier on me. I hate it when you do that. Mountieís are always supposed to tell the truth." Ray Kowalski shifted in his chair. His leg was throbbing but he wasnít about to tell anyone that. Especially Sara. She looked like a spring wound too tight and he didnít want to be the one to spring her.

"Whatís wrong?!" Sara turned and looked as if she had been slapped. Ray looked up startled.

"Huh?! What?! Nothingís wrong."

"Youíre a liar."

"Sara! You need toÖ." Ben could actually see the nerves unraveling. Ray tried to stiffen his posture and look as comfortable as possible.

"Itís your leg. Itís killiní you, ainít it?" Ray looked at Ben for what to say. He knew she was a wreck and the appearance of her more-than-usual Southern accent told him that. Ben rubbed his thumb across his eyebrow and reached for her hand.

"Sara." Ben tried to keep his voice as calm as possible. How could he have known that would irritate her even more?

"Iím not gonna let you sit here and suffer."

Jacky returned from his trip down the hall to see his sister on the verge of frantic. "And donít tell me youíre fine. Youíre not fine! You had a bullet in your leg."

"Sara." Jacky reached out for Saraís hand. She jerked it quickly away and glared at him.

"Donít! Iím fine! I donít need to lie down, or somethiní to eat or to be coddled like some child. I need to be here with my husband! I need to be here takiní care of Ray and makiní sure everythingís done like it should be. So just stopÖ..just stopÖ." Jacky took another step forward as the color left her face and the tears started to well in her eyes. Ben and Ray could only watch as she began to unravel. Neither of them was in a position to help her. Ben lowered his head. He was causing her so much pain. He was the reason for her stress and worry. Sara pulled away from Jacky and grabbed Benís chin and lifted his eyes to meet hers.

"Stop it! Stop it right now! You are not responsible. This is not your fault. I love you and you have to get better. You have to come home to me. You haveÖ.." Sara collapsed in sobs on the edge of his bed. Three days of worry, fear, nothing really to eat and hardly any sleep had hit Sara square in the face. Ray reached through the bed rail and pressed the button for the nurse. Sara and Ben didnít notice the nurse enter and leave. Within a few minutes, Natalie was pulling Sara away from Benís chest.

"Sara, you need to calm down. I need to talk to you. Sara." Natalie held her by the shoulders and looked her in the face as she spoke.

"You have to get some rest. You have to eat and rest. Ben and Ray are both going to be fine. Iím going to give you a prescriptionÖ.."

"I donít need a Ö.."

"You donít know what the hell you need, so stow it." Ray smiled at Natalieís choice of words. He was having an influence on her. Sara felt Ben squeeze her hand. "Iím only going to write you a script for five. Jacky, take this down to the pharmacy and have it filled. Give her one Valium and take her home. She should start to feel it by the time you hit the lobby."

"Iím not leaving."

"Iíll shove it down your throat now and have Jacky carry your ass out of here. Donít give me any crap Sara. Ben being in here is bad. Ray in here is worse, but you being stupid and putting yourself in here is not going to happen. Iím tired, Iím worried and Iím not taking any crap. I deal with stuff like this all the time. Itís my job. You donít, so listen to what Iím saying. Jacky, I thought I told you to do something." Jacky sprang to his feet and rushed down the hall.

Jack Montgomery walked in the room just about the time Natalie was ordering Ray back to his room.

"What in the Sam hill is goiní on here?" Ray looked up and grinned.

"Sara lost it. Natís giviní us all hell and Jackyís makiní a Valium run." Before Jack could comment, Natalie cornered him.

"You need to take her home and make her stay there. Iíll call if there is a problem. Whereís Caroline?"

"Sheís at Maís."

"Well, sheís spending the night. Ben, I think Iíll have your room moved. That would make things easier on all of us. Ray, youíre getting a bunkmate. Now, if there are any questions, keep them to yourself. Iíve got to check on one more patient and them my shift is up. Ray, as soon as Jacky gets back, youíre going back to your room. Ben, get ready to travel." Sara sat on the edge of the bed in silence. Ben was still holding her hand when Natalie rushed from the room. Jack looked at the face of his oldest child. The sadness and worry in her eyes scared him.

"Come on, babygirl. Letís get you home." Sara held tighter onto Benís hand. Ben looked into her eyes and smiled.

"Iím not going to leave you Sara. Iíll always be with you." Sara rubbed her palm down his cheek and offered him a faint smile.

"Promise." Ben leaned up and kissed her on the forehead.

"Promise." Jacky pushed the door open and looked around the room. The storm had passed.

"Jacky, you need to take Ray back to his room. Weíll wait for you out front."

"Yessir." Sara stood and let her father guide her to the elevator. How did she let things get beyond her control? Jack pulled her into a hug.

"Baby, you canít take care of the world. Some of us can do things on our own. You canít be the strong one all the time."

"I know Daddy."

"I donít think you do." Jack sighed and waited for the elevator doors to open.

"Daddy?"

"Yeah baby."

"Can we stop by Maís?"

"Sure." Jack stood with Sara leaning on his chest. He knew his daughter was tired and overstressed. The fear of losing the one person she loved more than life was more than she could bear. He sure wished Peggy was here.

~~"Just calm down." Debi pushed against Renís chest and deposited him in a chair. They were both grateful Inspector Thatcher had some errands to run which left the Consulate empty. Debi held the phone and quickly dialed her parentís number.

"Iím so nervous!" Turnbull wiped his hand across his forehead as he shifted nervously in his seat. Debi rolled her eyes as Turnbull started straightening his uniform.

"Youíre going to be fine. Calm down. They canít see you, you know." Turnbull nodded his head and smoothed his hair. Debi waited for the third ring.

"I bet theyíre outside. I may have to pageÖ..Momma! Itís Deb-IÖÖ.Yes maíam. Benís doing much better. I talked to Papa Jack about two hours agoÖÖNo Maíam I havenít seen SaraÖ..Thatís what I want to talk to you aboutÖ..Iíve been a little busyÖÖNo maíamÖÖItís RenÖÖI know you think heís sweet Momma, so do IÖÖI knowÖÖIÖÖMommaÖÖMommaÖÖ.Iím getting married!Ö..Momma? Momma, are you there? Oh crap. I think I killed her." Turnbull leapt to his feet and made a sound unlike anything Debi had ever heard.

"Calm down, Ren. Momma! I know youíre still there I can hear you breathingÖ..I know Momma, Iím happy too. Ren is coming home with me on Friday. He says he has to talk to DaddyÖ..Yes maíamÖ..okayÖÖI love you too, Bye Momma." Debi hung up the phone and smiled at Ren.

"They didnít want to talk with me?"

"Theyíll see you on Friday. Momma said she was going to prepare Daddy for the next two days."

"Prepare?"

"Iím his baby girl. Itís kinda a big deal."

"Oh dear." Ren felt the small beads of sweat form on the back of his neck. His serge felt as if it weighed a ton. Debi kissed him softly on the lips and took him by the hand.

"How long before you get off duty?"

"I will have completed my duties in exactly one hour and thirteen minutes."

"Great. I need to get back to the hospital."

"Iíll drive you over. Perhaps the Inspector would like to ride with us."

"Sounds good. I canít wait for Meg to get back. Now, are you ready to call your folks?"

"Oh dear."

~~~~~~

"Sara, whatís wrong?" Ray greeted Jack and Sara at the door of the Vecchio home. Jack held a protective arm around his daughterís petite frame.

"Sheís just had a little more than she can bear over the past few days. Sheís going home and going to bed. Natalie wrote her a prescription for something to help her relax and sleep."

"Iím fine. I just want to make sure my baby is okay." Ray blocked Saraís path into the den and held her head in his hands.

"I shouldnít have let you out of my sight. Iím sorry. I knew you were wound too tight and I just let you go."

"You needed to be with your family, Ray." Ray bent down to look her in the eyes and kissed her on the forehead.

"Carolineís in the kitchen. Maís feeding the kids dinner."

"Thanks Ray." Sara moved slowly through the house. Jack and Jacky walked into the den and sat down. John and Francesca had worried looks on their faces as Jack filled them in on the occurrences of the last two hours.

Sara smiled at Caroline as she slurped happily on her spaghetti. Ma saw the strain on Saraís face as she motioned to her.

"Ma, is it alright if Caroline spends the night? Natalieís makiní me..uhÖ.."

"Of course dear. She is my grandchild. You donít have to ask. You need to get your rest."

Sara looked up into the sweet motherly eyes of Rosa Vecchio. She tried not to breakdown in tears. Seeing her struggle, Rosa engulfed her in a warm hug.

"Heís going to be fine, dear. Benton is going to be fine."

"Momma!" Finally looking up from her plate, Caroline ran for her mother.

"Hey doodlebug."

"Momma, are you okay?"

"Iím just a little tired thatís all. Hey, would you like to spend the night at Grandmaís?"

"Yeah!" Dief exited his prime begging spot from under the table and walked over to Sara. He nudged at her arm and licked her palm.

"Hey, you want to stay here with Caroline?" Dief trotted out the kitchen door and into the den. He sat next to Jack and waited for them to leave. He was needed at home. Caroline was in good hands with Ma and Sara needed him now.

"I guess heís going home with me. Is that alright bug?"

"Datís okay. Iís a big girl."

"Yes you are. Give momma a hug." Sara wrapped her arms tightly around her daughterís small frame. Caroline squeezed her motherís neck as tightly as she could.

"You be a good girl."

"I will."

"I love you and Daddy loves you."

"I loves you." Sara kissed Caroline on the cheek while she lifted her back into her seat.

Ma appeared with containers of food.

"Take this home. I know you need to eat."

"Thanks Ma."

"Raymondo can drive you home."

"Daddyís here."

"Good. You donít need to be by yourself. Call us if you need anything."

"I will. I love you Ma."

"We love you dear."

Sara returned to the den with her food containers in hand. Jacky jumped to his feet and took the containers from Sara and put them in the car.

"You ready?" Ray started pulling on his coat.

"Daddy can take me home."

"I know. He is. But Iím going with you."

"You donít have to do that."

"I promised, remember?"

"Huh?"

"A long time ago I made a promise to my best friend. Iím not letting anything happen to you Sara." Jack smiled and walked into the kitchen to kiss his granddaughter. In a few minutes, Sara, her father and brother, best friend and a wolf were on their way to her apartment.

They all prayed things would get back to normal soon.

~~Meg Thatcher pushed the door of the consulate open with her foot. Her arms were loaded down with dry cleaning, packages, and file folders. Turnbull ran to her aid and removed the cumbersome packages from her arms.

"Thank you TurnÖÖWhatís been going on?"

"Sir?"

"YouíreÖ.well, youíre glowing."

"Glowing, sir?"

"Yes, Turnbull, youíre practically beaming. Whatís the matter?"

"Oh nothing is the matter sir."

"Well then what is it?"

The two of them walked down the hall of the Consulate and into Inspector Thatcherís office. Meg walked behind her desk and flipped absently through her phone messages while Turnbull squared away her packages.

"So?"

"So, sir?" Before Meg could pop a vein, Debi appeared in the doorway.

"Debi? Is everything alright at the hospital?" Megís worried face became one of curiosity as she saw the same glowing expression on Debiís face.

"Okay, I demand to know what is going on. You two look as if youíveÖ..oh dear, youÖ..Turnbull, I hope you havenít engaged in anyÖ.wellÖ.anyÖ..uh, communication while you were on duty!"

Turnbull stared blankly at the Inspector until her words sank through to his brain. Bringing his hands quickly to his mouth and looking from Debi to Inspector Thatcher, he began to turn the deepest shade of red.

"Oh my no! No, no, no, no, no. No, sir. We didnítÖ..Nooo, Debi and I havenítÖ..Oh dear, no sir, no." As Turnbull stood stammering, Debi walked over to Meg and shoved her ring finger at her.

"Look!" Meg grabbed Debiís hand and looked at Turnbull and then to Debi.

"You? You two? Well itís about time you two got things straight! Congratulations!" Meg and Debi engulfed each other in a hug while Turnbull tried to calm his nerves.

"Constable, I am very happy for you. Iím glad you two came to your senses."

"Yes sir."

"Well, itís almost five, Ren. Are you about ready? Meg, Ren and I are going to the hospital to check on Ben and Ray. You want to come with us?"

Looking around her office, Meg nodded in agreement.

"Turnbull, lock the front door and Iíll get the lights. We can take my car."

"Yes sir."

~~~~~~

Jack held the door for Sara. Jacky and Ray Vecchio followed closely behind. Ray went straight to the kitchen while Jacky went to Saraís room. Jack led Sara to the couch and made her sit down.

"Iím not a baby."

"Youíre my baby, so hush."

"Yes sir."

Diefenbaker jumped on the couch and rested his head in Saraís lap. Ray returned from the kitchen with a large glass of green Kool-aid and one of Saraís pills in his hand. Jacky left her bedroom with a pair of her sweatpants in one hand and his missing Clemson University Sweatshirt in the other.

"Iíve been looking for this. Here, go change right quick. Youíll feel better." Sara didnít say a word, but took the clothes from his hands and walked into the hall bathroom. A few seconds later she returned to the couch. Dief was once again resting in her lap and Ray shoved a Valium at her.

"Take it."

"Is this really necessary?"

"Yep."

"Take it." Jack Montgomery crossed his arms and glared down at Sara. The look on her face told Jacky she hated every minute of this. *Iím not a freakiní baby! I donít need to be treated like one! Why canít you people see that Iím grown and I just need to be at the hospital with my husband!? *

Sara took the small pill from Rayís palm and placed it at the back of her throat. Grabbing the Kool-aid, she guzzled a mouthful.

"There. Happy now?"

"Very. Now just sit there and relax. You want to watch a movie?"

"Not really."

"Good, that means I can flip." Jacky commandeered the remote and began channel surfing. Sara reclined on the couch as she gently stroked Diefís head.

Jack Montgomery called the hospital and spoke to Ray. He and Ben had settled into the double room just fine. Ben was sleeping and Rayís parents were sitting with him. Natalie had gone home to shower and check on her dog.

Ray stretched out on the love seat and enjoyed the simple pleasure of sitting in his best friendís apartment watching television. His mind drifted to the meeting he had with the bureau and the offer the FBI had made him. He hadnít told anyone about his meeting. Fortunately, with everything that was going on, no one had asked. The bust was clean and the charges would stick. The Iguana Familyís hierarchy of power had been shattered. The Falconeís took a hit that could never be recovered from. The FBI was grateful for the time he put in and wanted him to work for them on a permanent basis. * Do I really want to do that? I just got home. I need to be with my family. I need to get my old life back. Do I have an old life anymore? I wonder if I still have a job? Does Kowalski have my job now? Whatís gonna happen to him? Oh god, what if Welsh partners me with him? What about Benny? Jesus, Iíve got a headache. I wonder if Saraíll share one of those Valium?*

Sara looked over at Ray and saw the far away look in his eyes. *I wonder what heís thinking about? I wonder when these stupid pills are going to kick in? Iíve been sitting here for freaking thirty minutes. I hope they donít make me sick. I wonder what a Valium does to you? Deb-I would know. Where the hell is Deb-I? I hope she and Ren are getting their shit straight. Man, I cussed. Hm, I wonder why? Felt good though. Daddyíd freak if he knew I was thinking all these cuss words. Shit. Shit, shit , shi-ii-iit. Ha ha. Canít do a thing about it. I wonder what Benís doing. I hope he can come home soon. What if he has to stay there for a long time? What if heís in the hospital through Thanksgiving? What if heís there through Christmas? I canít be without him on Christmas!*

"Sara, whatís wrong?"

"Huh?"

"Why are you crying?" Jacky leaned forward and placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Huh?"

"Youíre crying. Why?"

"I donít know."

"You donít know?"

"I donít think so."

"Okay, lay back down and try to go to sleep. You want to go lay down in your room?"

"Uh-uh."

"Okay. Try to sleep, okay?"

"íKay."

* Good, those things are finally workiní. Sheís wacked out of her head. Maybe sheíll lay down and go to sleep. *

 

~~Debi, Turnbull and Meg slipped quietly into Ray and Benís hospital room. Thankfully a nurse recognized them and informed them of the room change. Ray was awake and flipping through the channels on the TV. His mother and father sat at the small table by the window. Barbara was engrossed in her romance novel while Damien thumbed through his hot rod magazine. Seeing Meg, Ray smiled and turned the television off.

"How are you feeling, Detective?"

"Iím fine. Fraserís been asleep for Ďbout an hour." Turnbull and Debi watched Ben sleep for a moment and then turned their attentions to Ray.

"You need anything?" Debi glanced at his chart to see what type of medication they had him on. Barbara stood and hugged everyone.

"Itís so good of you to come and check on our Stanley." Rayís expression changed and Debi began to get concerned.

"Howís Sara?"

"I thought she was here." Barbara stood and straightened Rayís blankets while she answered Debi.

"Oh honey, Detective Vecchio and Mr. Montgomery had to take her home, poor little thing. She was absolutely frazzled."

"Is she alright?!" Debi squeezed Turnbullís hand and searched Rayís eyes for answers. Before Ray could answer Ben shifted and sat up in his bed.

"Sheís pushed herself too hard."

Turnbull stood by his bedside and fussed with his pillow.

"Are you comfortable sir?"

"Iím fine Turnbull, and please drop the formalities."

"Certainly."

"Ben, whatís up with Sara?" Debi was starting to get worried.

"Natalie has written her a prescription for some medication that will relax her and possibly allow her to get some rest. She sent her home with her father and brother. Ray accompanied them to make sure Sara would do as she was told. You know how hard headed she can be."

"Yeah, look whoís talkiní."

Ben ignored Rayís comment and continued talking to Debi.

"She should be at home by now. Would you be so kind as to check on her for me?"
"Of course. Do you need anything while weíre here?"

"Constable, what has the doctorís said of your condition?" Meg stepped closer to Ben.

"Natalie says that everything is healing properly and that I should be out of this place in about three weeks."

Meg smiled and nodded and then turned her attentions to Ray.

"And what about you? When are you going home?"

"Nat sayís the leg can stay in a cast and the other wound is healiní fine. The bullet went out of its way not to hit anythiní I needed. So I should be outta here by then end of next week."

"Thatís wonderful news Ray. Will your parents be staying?"

"I wish dear. My Stanley is so difficult some times. He insist we go."

"Well Ma, you aní Pop had the trip all planned."

"But youíre more important than any trip. Vancouver will always be there."

"Sheís right, son."

"I know, but Iím gonna be fine. Natís here and sheís a doctorÖ.."

"But sheís not your mother." Ray cringed. His mother could always make him feel like a guilty nine-year-old.

"I know Mom. But I want you aní Pop to be able ta go on vacation. Iím fine, really. Fraser, tell her Iím fine."

"He appears fine, Mrs. Kowalski."

"I know, I know. Weíre leaving at the end of the week. Natalie has our phone numbers so she can call us if anything happens that we should know about."

"Nothinís gonna happen Ma." Barbara grabbed Ray by the face and squeezed his cheeks. The others in the room couldnít help but smile. Debi then cast a dark look toward Ren. He nodded and inched closer to the door.

"Perhaps we should check on Sara." Meg nodded and smiled at Ray and Ben.

"Please call if you need anything."

"Thanks."

"Thank you kindly, Meg."

~~~~~~

John and Francesca sat at the kitchen table and enjoyed Maís cooking.

"Well, Fran, I guess we better start planning a wedding." Francesca swallowed and beamed with excitement. Rosa Vecchio crossed herself and laughed.

"Francesca, when would you like to get married?" Franny looked from her mother and then back to John. His face was bright with anticipation.

"The sooner the better! How about December?!" John nodded in agreement and leaned across the table to kiss his future bride. Rosa nearly gasped in shock.

"Oh my! December?! But Francesca, that is only two months away! How can we possiblyÖ." John smiled and winked at Francesca.

"Ma, you forget, I am in the wonderful position to get anything I need or desire for our wedding. Franny, love, you say the word and it is yours." Rosa stood and walked over to the sink.

"No dear, it is the brides family that pays for the wedding."

"Traditionally yes, but we are not a traditional couple. Francesca and I have discussed our wedding many times. There are factors that very few couples have to consider." Rosa looked puzzled for a moment until Francesca joined her by her side.

"The press, Ma. You know if we donít do things a certain way, theyíll be all over everyone. Look at Sean Penn and Madonna. Barbra Streisand and that guy. John is just as famous as they are. Look at how the press reacts to him now. The only reason he has any peace here is because we are pretty boring. We have to do things differently, Ma. Please."

"Of course, cara. You are so smart. Whatever you want. Just let me know what I can do."

"Marvelous!" John leapt to his feet and hugged his future wife and mother-in-law. "Iíll call my agent in the morning and see what all the other big shots do when they get married."

"Iíve got to call Welsh!" Seeing the questioning looks, Francesca yelled as she walked down the hall. "If Iím getting married in a few months, I need the day off to look for a dress."

 

~~"Howís it going?!" Debi lifted Saraís feet and sat down on the end of the couch.
"Fine." Debiís concerned look went unnoticed by Sara as she stared at the TV.

"You feel like eating something?"

"I feel like a shower." Debi smiled slightly at Saraís muffled words. Debi knew that Valium would have a real effect on Sara. She never had any tolerance when it came to medication. Everything hit her hard and fast.

"You want me to help you in the shower?" Sara nodded and brushed an imaginary strand of hair from her face. Debi helped Sara sit up and then enlisted Ray to help walk her to her bathroom.

"You two gonna be alright in here?" Debi smiled and nodded.

"This ainít the first time Iíve had to help Sara in the shower." Ray chuckled and helped sit Sara on the bed.

"Yeah I bet."

"Hey! Stop talkiní about me like I ainít even here."

"Sorry, love Sara." Sara smiled and rubbed her hand down Debiís face.

"Love Deb-I." Giggling to herself, Sara decided to lean back on the bed.
"Sit up, Sara, I canít get your shirt off."

"But Rayís still here."

"Oh yeah, Ray, hit the bricks."

"Got it."

Ray quickly left the room and joined Jacky, Meg, Turnbull and Jack in the living room.

"Man, that stuff sure makes you relaxed."

"Yeah, sheís stoned." Jacky chuckled at his remark.

"Has she slept any?" Ray sat next to Meg on the couch and nodded at her question.

"Yeah, Jacky gave her the pill and she went to sleep about an hour later. She slept for, what, two hours?"

"That sounds about right."

Debi walked a very relaxed Sara to the shower and turned the water on.

"Hot! Hot!"

"Oh sorry. There, is that better?"

"Mm-huh."

"Okay, you gonna be okay for a minute while I get you some clothes?"

"Iím grown, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Answer me."

"Yeah, Iím fine." Sara rested her head on the wall as the warm water trailed down her back. She could tell the Valium was wearing off and she was grateful. She hated taking things like that. The doctors made her take Valium after the kidnapping. She only took one and then made excuses to Ben why she shouldnít have to take anymore. Sara heard Debi outside the door and opened her eyes and lifted her head quickly.

The walls seemed to close in and blackness closed in around her eyes. In a weak voice she called out to Debi before she stumbled.

"DebÖ."

"Oh dammit! Jacky!" Debi pulled the shower door back and reached under Saraís arms. She hadnít hurt herself save for a bruised knee. Jacky ran for the bathroom door.

"Whatís wrong?!"

"She nearly passed out. Whenís the last time she ate something?" Jacky ran to Debiís side and helped pull Sara over to the bed. He left Debi with her and ran to get a towel to cover her with. "The water must have been too warm and the fact that she hasnít eatenÖ." Debiís thoughts trailed off as she wrapped the towel around Sara. Sara reached out for Debi and took slow deep breaths.

"Iím sorry. Iím sorry."

"Thereís nothing to be sorry for. Your bodyís just telling you to take better care of yourself. You hungry?"

Debi nodded and Sara found herself nodding with her. Jacky pulled the blanket at the end of the bed around her shoulders.

"What do you want Sara? You name it."

In a low and tired voice Sara whispered.

"Chinese. I want Chinese."

"You got it. Iíll have take out here in no time." Jacky ran into the living room and started taking food orders. Within twenty minutes, Debi had Sara showered dressed and eating Chicken Lo Mien.

"You feeling better?" Jack rubbed a hand down his daughterís head.

"Yessir. I feel much better. Please donít make me take anymore of those pills."

"You gonna take better care of yourself and not get so stressed out?"

"Iíll try." Jacky swallowed his last bite of egg roll and grinned.

"Good, then Iíll try not to shove one of those pills down your throat."

~~Sara looked around her as she finished the last bite of her egg roll. She had polished off all of the Lo Mein, an egg roll and a fortune cookie. She was hungrier than she thought. The haze from the Valium had finally lifted. She sat back in her chair and watched as her family and friends chatted around the table. Everyone was more relaxed and the conversation was light and pleasant. Then her gaze fell on Ray. He had a small smile on his face and appeared to be enjoying himself, but something was wrong. Something was going on in his head. She made a mental note to get some time alone with him to find out what was on his mind. In mid thought her eye caught a sparkle from the lights of the kitchen.

"Oh my God!" Everyone at the table jumped and stared at Sara. She lunged across the kitchen table and grabbed Debiís hand in mid bite.

"What did you do?!" A large smile beamed from Debi and Turnbull. Sara started to laugh at the look on Debiís face.

"He asked me."

Pulling containers to safety, Jacky and Meg tried to avoid the table being inadvertently cleared by Sara nearly climbing on top of it to hug Debi as the two of them screamed incoherently.

Fortunately Jack had noticed the ring when Sara was in the shower and had cornered Turnbull.

Ray gave a small smile. The look of regret was not unnoticed by Jacky. Rayís mind flashed back to a summer night at the farm and a long kiss on the front porch. Ray shook the memory from his head and looked at his friends. Turnbull was bursting with pride and love. It was evident that the two of them were in love and doing what they were meant to do.

~~~~~~

"You okay?" Ray Kowalski shifted his position in his hospital bed. Everyone had left and he and Fraser were alone.

"Iím fine, thank you kindly Ray."

"No I mean, are you okay? Sara and all."

"I worried."

"Yeah, me too. But her Dad ainít gonna let nothiní happen to her. And Caroline is at Maís."

"I know. Itís just thatÖ.." Benís thought trailed off as he rubbed his thumb over his eyebrow and licked his bottom lip.

"I know, you oughta be the one there. But you canít Fraser, some things you just canít help."

Ben released a long and heavy sigh. Nodding, he knew Ray was right.

"You wanna watch tv?"

"Sure, whatís on?"

"Thereís a Wingsí game on."

"Sounds great." Ray clicked the TV on and before long the two of them were relaxing comfortably in their respective hospital beds. Ray noticed that Ben would check the clock every so often. He smiled to himself as he pushed the phone toward Fraserís side of the small table that separated their beds.

"Itís halftime, go ahead."

"Thanks Ray."

~~~~~

Sara yawned and stretched. Jack, Debi, Turnbull and Meg had decided to leave for the night. Ray and Jacky stayed to keep Sara company. The phone rang and Ray was closest.

"Hey Benny! Are you okay? You sound much betterÖ..Yeah, sheís fine. Debi came over and helped her in the showerÖ..I know, the pills really threw her for a loopÖ..Jacky ordered her some ChineseÖ."

"Is that Ben?"

"Ö.yeah, she ate all of itÖ..reallyÖ."

"Let me talk to Ben." Sara had vacated her seat and was now standing in between Rayís outstretched legs. Bouncing in place, she pulled at the phone cord.

"No, sheís awakeÖ..yeah, howís Kowalski.Ö..goodÖ.."

"Raa-aaay."

"..yeah, thatís her whiningÖ.I know, sheís about to wet her pantsÖ..yeahÖ.." A large smile spread across Rayís face as he and Fraser playfully talked on the phone.

"Gimme the phone!"

"Ö.okay, sheís about to dieÖ.Iíll be at the hospital in the morningÖ..yeah, I missed you too buddyÖ.Jacky and I are looking out for herÖ..I know, I promiseÖ..okayÖ..here she is." Ray handed the phone to Sara and laughed as she flopped down on the couch beside him. Jacky smiled at his sister as she talked softly to Ben. The color had returned to her face and the dark circles under her eyes were almost gone. She looked considerably better. He sat lost in thought, but he wasnít the only one. Ray stared at the TV but didnít see a thing. His mind was on other matters. He wondered what it would be like to be home again for good.

~~~~~~

~~Dr. Natalie OíNeill walked slowly into her dark apartment. It had been 48 hours since she had stepped foot in her own home. She absently dropped the keys on the end of the couch as she walked toward the bathroom. She needed these few days off. With all the events of the last couple of days, she wondered how she managed to keep her head on straight. She pulled her shoes off and let them fall to the floor. Pulling at her sweater, she yanked it over her head and tossed it on the floor. As she walked down the hall, peeling off clothes as she went, she could feel the strain leaving her body.

"Bath. I need a bath."

Reaching the bathroom door, she flicked on the lights and started the bath water. Sighing as she saw the condition of her hair and make-up in the mirror she made her way to the bedroom. Stripping herself of the last of her clothing, she turned the stereo on and listened to the gentle strains of the music. She stood naked in the middle of her bedroom and stretched. Her muscles ached and seized as she pulled and stretched. She walked back into the bathroom and settled into the steaming water. Closing her eyes, she rested her head on the end of the tub. Reaching for a bottle of shampoo she froze.

Rayís shirt hung carelessly over the towel rack. She had told him on the numerous occasions that he spent the night that her towel rack was not his dirty laundry hook. Taking the worn green shirt gently in her hands, she brought it up to her face and took in the scent of him that still lingered. It had only been three days. Three days since Ray was drawing smiley faces in her bathroom mirror. Three days since he was kissing her neck and sharing the shower with her.

Natalie took a deep breath and the release came in the form of a soft and emotional sob. She could finally react to everything she had seen that night. Ray on the gurney with blood all over his chest and legs. Ben with blood still spilling from his chest and the bone still protruding through the skin of his arm. Ray Vecchioís panicked face as he held tightly on to Benís hand. The fear in his eyes as Natalie wheeled Ben up to surgery. The pain and worry in Saraís, as she feared for the people she loved. Through it all, Natalie had to be the professional. She had to make them well again and keep the level head. Now she sat alone. Crying for herself and for Ray. Crying for Sara and Ben. Crying for Ray and his family.

 

~~~~~~~~

"I love you too. Goodnight and Iíll see you in the morning. Tell Ray I love him too. Just not as much." Ben and Sara laughed easily as they spoke on the phone. As she hung up, the smile was still on her face. She closed her eyes and softly prayed to God, thanking Him for making things better. Ray nudged her in the side and grinned.

"Feel better now?"

"Yeah, what time is it?"

"Nine thirty."

"Iím gonna call Maís and see how Caroline did today. Are you going home tonight or do you want to stay here?" Ray hesitated a moment and Sara could see the emotions flashing in Rayís eyes.

"I think Iíll stay with you. I promised Benny Iíd look after you."

"Thatís fine. Jacky, you want couch, guestroom, Carolineís room or you can sleep with me."

"I ainít sleepiní with you. You kick. Besides, Iím too old to be campiní out with you. We might end up on Springer or somethiní." Jacky laughed and threw a pillow at Sara.

"Jacky, go ahead and take the guest room, Iíll sleep out here on the couch."

"You sure, Ray? I could sleep out here just fine."

"Nah, youíve got a long flight tomorrow. What time are you and Debi going back?"

"I donít know if Iím going back or not. I might stay a while longer. Daddy said he needed to go back and check on the sale Pace made and that Debi and Ren were flyiní back with him." Sara knew what was going on. She glared at Jacky as Ray looked confused.

"I donít need lookiní after." *Uh-Oh, youíve pissed her off now, boy. Sheís talking like Scarlet. *

"I didnít say you did."

"Then why are you stayiní?"

"íCause I love beiní arouní my merry-sunshine sister."

"Thatís a lie." Sara was getting angrier by the second and Jacky loved every bit of it.

"You got that right."

"Bite me!"

"I donít eat shÖÖ" Ray held his hands up and waved them in front of Jacky and Sara.

"Okay, thatís it. Jacky, why are you staying?"

Jacky looked down at the floor and then directly at Sara.

"I donít want to see my sister upset. I love her and I want to make sure sheís okay."

Saraís expression softened as she spoke.
"You donít have to, you know."

"I want to." There was a long silence and Ray figured the topic was dropped. Then Sara got up and walked over to where Jacky was sitting. She kissed him on the top of the head and he smiled. Then he grabbed her by the waist and turned her upside down over the back of the couch.

"Cootie!"

Ray shook his head, why brothers and sisters had to act like that was beyond him.

~~Jacky settled in the guest room bed and quickly fell into a deep restful sleep. Sara was looking more like herself. Ben and Ray were doing better and Debi had finally listened to him about Turnbull.

Continued in part 3


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