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Disclaimer: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims to the series' characters by the creation of this story. Fraser, Vecchio, Kowalski et.al. belong to Alliance, Paul Haggis and all the creative genius who made this show so special. No infringement of any copyrights held by CBS, Alliance, CTV, TNT or any other copyright holders of due SOUTH is intended. No money being made here.
due SOUTH:
A Pox on It!

By: Janice R. Sager
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A hanky. Ray had thought his mother was the only one who still used them. He carried one at her insistence and out of childhood habit; and because a clean cotton surface was sometimes handy for checking out evidence. Ray was not surprised that Ben carried one. He'd just never expected to see it used for its originally intended purpose. And it wasn't the first time Ben had fished it out today.

"Head cold?" he asked, keeping his eyes carefully focused on the road ahead.

"Apparently," Ben answered, tucking the soiled linen away to be washed later. He sighed silently and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the head rest.

Ray frowned. It had been a rather frantic day. A couple of hot leads had paid off and they'd managed to bust the head of the car jacking ring they'd been working on all week. Who'd a thought it was a woman? Or that she'd freak and pull a gun. At least no one had been hurt, but he had more than a bit of paperwork facing him tomorrow after the resultant car chase and then foot chase...

Dief offered a worried whine from the back seat. Ben brought low by anything, let alone a head cold, was hard to accept; but Ray realized his friend hadn't been quite as fast on his feet as usual there at the end. Apparently, the chase had taken the last of his energy reserves. "I suppose even Superman has to catch a cold now and then."

Ben offered an irritable frown but made no move to open his eyes or lift his head. "I'm not Superman," he grumbled, "and I'm not sick. Or not much, anyway. It's just a head cold. I'll be fine in the morning."

"Uh-huh," Ray muttered as he made the turn onto Racine. He finished the turn and reached out to lay a hand on Ben's forehead. Ben jerked at the unexpected touch and immediately swatted the hand away, but not before Ray had learned what he needed to know. "You're running a fever."

"I would hardly think that uncommon with a head cold," the Mountie groused. "Especially after chasing down a fleeing suspect."

"Got any NyQuil or Dristan in your apartment?"

"I'll be fine, Ray," Ben answered, picking up his hat from the dash and swinging the door open as Ray brought the car to a halt.

"Yeah, but miserable," Ray rejoined and threw Ben an irritated frown of his own as he insisted, "Now, you got anything to take for a head cold or not?"

"Yes," he answered with a sigh. There were a number of herbal remedies he could prepare that would help alleviate his symptoms just as well, if not better, than the over the counter medications Ray was thinking of. Some tea, a light dinner and a good night's sleep would see him feeling much better tomorrow. He'd been fighting it for two days now. Ray had simply been too busy working the Angier case to notice before this. "I'll be fine."

The last three words were said quite firmly and Ray knew better than to push. "Okay," he sighed, throwing up his hands in defeat, "but if you're still running a fever when I come to pick you up tomorrow, you're calling in."

Ben didn't have the energy to argue. He merely rolled his eyes and exited the vehicle, holding the seat forward for Dief who joined him with alacrity. "Night, Ray," he called politely as he closed the door. Forcing a normal posture and swift stride, Ben escaped his friend's overly concerned gaze and disappeared into his building. Only when he heard the Riv pull away and was sure there was no one about, did he let his shoulders slump and slow his stride. He was hot and tired and his head was pounding. For the first time since he'd moved into the apartment, he wished the elevator was working.

The next day, Ray pulled up in front of Fraser's apartment building earlier than usual. He knew perfectly well that, sick or not, Ben would be down at the curb at 6:45 sharp. By arriving early, Ray hoped to catch him off guard, and maybe get a better idea of how his friend was really doing. If he was still sick, Ray was going to have a fight on his hands to get the Mountie to stay home. The man was the living definition of the word 'stubborn'. He didn't want to have to sit on the guy, but...

It was stupid, and he knew it! He was acting like the guy's mother or something. Everybody got head colds, right?

Everybody except Benny.

That was the problem. Benny had been roughed up and stabbed and shot and hospitalized more than once over their two year friendship. He'd jumped out of windows and off trains and onto moving cars and trucks. He'd faced down cars and guns both, taking on the mean streets of Chicago and refusing to bend. And no matter what, he'd always come out on top of it all. Mr. Invincible!

Well, most of the time... Victoria had been the exception that proved the rule.

Still, the idea that a stupid little germ could knock someone like Benny on his butt was... Well, it was scary, quite frankly. Ray quickly locked his car and headed upstairs. Old bat-ears had probably heard him pull up so he had to hurry if he was to catch his partner unprepared... if that was even possible! Despite the horrendous hour, he actually smiled as he came up to 3J. Ben would be more than surprised to see him this early.

The smile suddenly became a frown as he realized that Ben might also be a little pissed. Quickly, he pulled out the stem of his watch and reset it. If Ben was doing better, Ray could claim his watch was acting up. If Ben wasn't doing better...

But he would be, Ray assured himself, refusing to acknowledge the worry that had him standing here so early. He lifted his hand and gave the wood a sharp rap. Dief greeted him from the other side with a single bark. Ray leaned his head forward, listening for Ben.

"...Ray?" came the muffled reply to the wolf. Ray smirked, then quickly schooled his face as he heard Ben shuffling to the door.


"Come on, Benny!" he called, hoping to reinforce his cover story for being so early. "We're going to be late!"

Late? Ben paused and glanced at his own watch in confusion. 6:30. Ray was a good fifteen minutes early... Ben couldn't remember him mentioning anything about needing to be in early today? Then again, Ben wasn't exactly up to par at the moment so... He squared his shoulders, remembering Ray's promise to make him call in sick if he were still running a fever. He suspected he was, but he had no intention of missing work because of a silly head cold!

Unfortunately, straightening his shoulders hurt and his expression when he greeted Ray was therefore a bit stressed and not the stoic, perfectly normal face he would have liked to present.

"Benny?" Ray asked in obvious concern.

Ben turned from the door and forced himself to walk as normally as possible to the closet where his red serge tunic and Sam Brown waited to be donned. "I'm not calling in," he told the other man simply, hoping to forestall any argument. "And you're early, not late."

Unfortunately, he spoiled the effect by coughing.

"Hell," he heard his friend mutter and hurry forward. "No you don't." Ray grabbed his arm and stopped him in mid-reach for his tunic.

The unexpected move threw the off kilter Mountie even more off kilter. He was surprised to feel Ray jumping forward to steady him and even more surprised to realize that he needed it. The room wasn't exactly spinning but... "Whoa..." he muttered, waiting for the room to right itself again. The last time he'd felt like this, he'd had a serious concussion...

"That does it," Ray ordered brusquely, firmly assuming control. "You're calling in: no if, ands or buts about it." He placed a cool hand upon the Mountie's forehead. "You're burning up! When's the last time you took some Tylenol?" He didn't wait for Ben to answer but instead turned him toward his bed before he fell over.

"A low grade fever isn't necessarily a (cough)... a bad thing, Ray." He frowned as he felt himself falling back upon the bed with nothing more than a light shove from his friend. The minute he was down, he was trying to stand again. "I can't call in," he complained. "We're hosting this month's diplomatic round table. Inspector Thatcher is going to--"

He was interrupted by another coughing fit that set him right back on the bed. Oh god but his head felt like it was going to split open!

Ray managed to discover the box of Kleenex Ben had placed on his night stand and shoved several tissues in his face. "Low grade fever, my ass," he muttered curtly. "You shut up and do as you're told or I'm hauling your butt to the hospital! Which will it be?"

Ben couldn't answer. He needed to blow his nose instead.

"That's what I thought." Ray nodded and fished out his cell phone, flipping it open and hitting the speed dial for the Consulate. "Turnbull should be there by now..."

"Ray..!" Ben complained, tossing the tissue toward the waste basket and missing. He frowned in irritation, and then turned his gaze to Ray to stare up at him in pained frustration. Dief offered a concerned whine and came over to push his snout into Ben's hands. "I'm fine," he assured the wolf, then glanced back at Ray. "It's only a head cold! Can't we just get some of that NyQuil or Dristan you mentioned the other night?" Ben hated taking medications like that but right now he'd do anything to end this talk of calling in. He had to go to work! He couldn't believe that a little head cold was making him feel so weak and miserable. "This isn't necessary. I won't be exerting myself. I'll simply be sitting down all day!"

"You mean you'll be sleeping all day," Ray rejoined firmly, moving away so Ben wouldn't be tempted to try and take the phone away from him. "Turnbull, it's Vecchio. The Dragon Lady in yet?"

Fraser rolled his eyes and tried to stand. This was ridiculous! He--

--Oh heavens, but it hurt to move like that! He discovered yet again that he ached all over. He'd been hoping that getting up and moving around would help, but it hadn't. And apparently the willow bark tea he'd made earlier hadn't kicked in yet either. He knew it was the effects of the fever. He knew he was being a wimp. He also knew he couldn't hope to jump to his feet and get the phone away from Ray before Turnbull finished his diatribe about calling people names.

"Right. Right, whatever," Ray interrupted him, "is she there yet? ...Okay, well, take a message for me, okay?"

Ben propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands in defeat. Dief jumped up on the bed and lay down next to him. Ben reached over and gave him another reassuring scratch. This was so stupid...

"...Fraser's sick. He ain't coming in today." There was a long pause in which Ben was quite certain Turnbull was expressing his concern. Darn, but he hated having someone worried about him! "...No, it's not serious, looks like a bad head cold, but he is running a good fever. I'm going to be taking him over to my place and sic Ma on him. She'll get him back on his feet in no time."

"This isn't necessary..." Ben sighed in vain.

"Tell the Dragon La-- Inspector Thatcher --that she can call me if she has a problem with it, okay?" Again there was a bit of a pause while Turnbull spoke. "Right. Talk to you later."

And that was that. Apparently, he wasn't going to work today...

"Ma!" Ray shouted without preamble as he held the door open for Benny. It was obvious he didn't want this kind of fuss, but Ray wasn't giving him a choice. The man was pale, his cheeks rosy with fever and his eyes looked like three inches of cracked glass. Even so, the proud Mountie fought to hold himself straight and not sway as he tried to dissuade his friend one last time.

"Please take me home, Ray," he asked. "If I stay here, I'm just going to spread it to your family. Surely, you don't want that?"

"We've probably already had it, Benny," Ray answered, gently kicking Dief forward so he could shut the door. "The kids are always bringing stuff home from school."

Ben cleared his throat and couldn't resist scratching a spot on his chest. His Henley beneath the tunic was itching for some reason. Probably the sweat from the fever. "Still, if you're not certain--"

"Ray?" Frannie's surprised tone carried to them a moment before the young woman appeared at the doorway to the dinning room. "What are you doing her-- Benton? Oh my God, you look terrible! What happened?"

Ray rolled his eyes at what he decided was typical-Frannie-over-reaction to the situation. "Nothing 'happened', Frannie," he corrected her in disgust and stepped between her and Fraser in a futile attempt to shield the defenseless man. "He's sick. Where's Ma?"

"Maria was taking her to the grocery store after they dropped the kids off at school," his sister answered, easily side stepping his attempt to protect Benny and frowning in concern as she took in his flushed face. She reached for his forehead but Ray swatted her hand aside.

"Hands off, Frannie," he ordered brusquely. "The poor guy's sick. He doesn't need you pawing him."

Frannie awarded her brother's comment the look of utter disdain it deserved. "I had no intention of 'pawing' him. I just wanted to check him for fever."

"Of course he's running a fever!" Ray exclaimed. "You can look at him and see that!"

"I can't tell how bad it is--"

"--You can't tell that with your hand either, Frannie!"

"Yes, I can, Bro," she claimed sharply. "I've been baby-sitting Maria's kids when they get sick since they were born, which is a hell of a lot more than you can say. Stop acting like I'm going to rip his clothes off and let me help him! Frankly, he looks like he should go to the hospital." She frowned up at him in concern again and again reached for his forehead. This time Ray didn't stop her. "He's up there all right," she decided. "A hundred and two, easy. When's the last time you took any medicine, Benton?"

"He hasn't," Ray answered, taking Benny by the arm and leading him past Frannie toward the guest room. "Wanta help? Get a thermometer and some Tylenol."

"I drank some willow bark tea earlier," Ben supplied. "It's a natural--"

"--Willow?" Frannie interrupted him. "That's, like, what they make aspirin from isn't it?"

"Yes--" Fraser was interrupted from saying anything more by a coughing fit.

"Where'd you learn about where aspirin comes from?" Ray asked in surprise.

She rolled her eyes. "I know a hell of a lot more than you ever give me credit for, Ray. Hey..." Frannie frowned, noticing something on the side of Ben's neck and leaning in to peer closer. "What's this?"

Ben jerked back in surprise and Ray had to grab him to keep him from falling over. "What'da ya think you're doing?" he exclaimed in disbelief while stiff arming Frannie away. "You trying to catch this too?"

"I'm trying to see what's on the side of his neck," she rejoined irritably. Ray was always so melodramatic!

"What?" he asked, turning back to Ben as the Mountie managed to control his cough and stand upright again. Ray frowned at his neck. "Here?" There was a small, red dot on Ben's neck, just above the collar of his tunic which Ben had insisted on donning. It was either that or change clothes all together as he refused to leave the apartment in a partial uniform. "Looks like... like a bite, maybe?" It was a little bigger than the size of an eraser but Ray couldn't distinguish a center point like for a bite...

Ben lifted his hand to the spot they were looking at but couldn't feel anything.

"Outta the way, Bro." Frannie gently shoved him aside. "Let an expert take a peek."

Ray rolled his eyes but allowed Frannie her look. She did handle the kids and stuff a lot more than he did.

Ben was a bit more hesitant about the inspection, but one look at the real concern on Francesca's face forced him to drop his hand -- 'though he did hold his breath in what he knew was quite surely a futile attempt to keep her from being exposed to his germs.

Frannie put her hand upon his neck, noting again how warm he was. She also noted when he scratched his chest again... She quickly scanned the rest of his neck and found a second, lighter mark up by his hair line.

She frowned sharply. "Frase--" She started to ask him something, then decided she had to be wrong. He was too old. Not that there was really an age limit or... She saw him scratch yet again in a different spot. She bit her lip in confusion and dared ask the question she'd thought of, hoping he wouldn't laugh at her. "Frase... have you ever had... chicken pox?"

"Chicken pox!" Ray echoed incredulously.

Ben got a surprised look on his face and glanced down at his hand which was arrested in the act of scratching yet another itch. He didn't show the slightest inclination toward laughter.

Ray easily read Ben's dumbfounded look. "You haven't, had you? The worst thing you could name a couple months ago when I asked you about being sick as a kid was pink eye. You've never had chicken pox!"

"One of the Gamez family in my building recently suffered a case of chicken pox," Ben answered, putting the final pieces together. "I must have been exposed and not realized it."

"That's where you got it," Frannie nodded decisively. "Ray, get him up into bed and get him comfortable while I go get what I need. And by comfortable I mean comfortable: T-shirt and underwear. And if he's wearing those long johns of his, give him some of your stuff. That wool, or whatever, is only going to make the itch worse."

"How do you know about his long johns!" Ray exclaimed in surprise.

She rolled her eyes at her brother's over-defensiveness. "It's none of your business how I know. I know, okay?"

Ray turned his glare on Benny who could do nothing but stare back in confused mortification. He'd already explained to Ray before that he couldn't... His sense of chivalry refused to let him explain. Oh dear, he thought.

Frannie sighed and turned away, exasperated with her brother. Still, Benny was kinda cute when he was all flustered... "I promise not to jump him..." she threw a flirtatious smile over her shoulder, unable to resist teasing him even as she hurried away, "...unless he wants me too."

"Frannie!" Ray shouted.

"Oh dear..."

"I'm joking!" she called back while trying to choke back her laughter as she disappeared around the corner. Men! And they called women the illogical ones.

Ray shook his head as she disappeared and then turned to regard his rather shell-shocked friend. "It was that night, wasn't it," he accused Ben. "When you said she threw herself at you."

"That's not what I said, Ray."

"When she 'offered' herself to you, then! ...You're still not going to tell me what happened, are you?"

Ben merely stared at him in helpless silence... until he was forced to turn away by suddenly sneeze.

Ray sighed, knowing he'd never get it out of him. "'Might be a better idea if I took you to the hospital after all, Benny," he suggested.

Ben frowned. "No," he refused bluntly. "There's nothing a doctor could really do for me in any case, Ray. Chicken pox is a viral infection. It has to run its course." Another coughing fit interrupted him. Ray grabbed hold of his arm to steady him.

"One look at you and any doctor in his right mind would slap your butt in bed!" he claimed.

Ben straightened painfully. "I'd be sent home with a large bottle of calamine lotion, instructions to alternate acetaminophen and ibuprofen for the fever, and told to sleep," he rejoined.

Ray offered a rather unsympathetic snicker. "I can just see you lying in bed, encrusted in bright pink lotion, and staring up at the ceiling in that sauna you call an apartment while exerting all your concentration not to scream because of the itching!" He began leading Ben toward the stairs to the second floor only to have the Mountie dig in his heels once more.

"There's no need to exaggerate my condition, Ray," Ben sighed. "I'm sure I'll be uncomfortable for a few days, but there's no reason to think I can't manage on my own. It really would be best if you simply took me home. Chicken pox is highly contagious. I don't want to expose your family to it."

"Stop arguing and get up these stairs!" Ray got him moving again with a gentle shove. He simply didn't have the strength to put up any kind of resistance. "Everyone in the family has already had the chicken pox except little Sylvia and I think she got vaccinated against them a few months ago."

"The chicken pox vaccine is very new, Ray," Ben argued. "No one is sure how effective it is."

"Then I guess we're going to find out, aren't we?" he answered, forcing Ben upward. "Maria will probably have Sylvia up here climbing all over you just to make sure she does get exposed. It's supposed to be a lot easier for kids to handle than adults. Ah, crap!" he suddenly exclaimed as a horrible thought occurred to him. He stopped dead in his tracks and glanced back to make sure Frannie hadn't reappeared. "You gotta go to the doc!" he whispered. "You could wind up sterile from this!"

"Sterile?" Ben echoed in surprise.

"Yeah, sterile!" Ray hissed in concern. "Like as in 'not being able to ever have any kids' kind of sterile? Man, I forgot about that..."

"Ray," Ben sighed, rolling his eyes, "that's an old wives' tale."

"No, it isn't, Benny!" Ray exclaimed softly. "Why the hell do you think they used to have chicken pox parties? Used to be if a kid in the neighborhood got the chicken pox, the mothers would all get together and throw a kind of party for him so as to expose all their kids to it too, cause you wanted to make sure you got it as a kid and not an adult when it could, you know, do permanent damage!"

"Yes, Ray," Ben sighed. "I know that, but there is no actual documented evidence of the chicken pox causing sterility in adult males, or if there is it is very rare. Mumps on the other hand..." He suddenly glanced behind him as he remembered that Francesca was in the house. He cleared his throat and continued, softly. "But I don't have the mumps. I have chicken pox. Apparently. And while it is true that it's much harder on adults than on children, it's not something to be overly concerned about." He had to pause to wipe his nose.

"You sure?" Ray asked, knowing full well that Benny was a fount of strange little trivia like this but that didn't mean he couldn't be wrong.

"Quite sure, Ray," he answered, looking rather worn out by the whole discussion. "Besides, even if there were a danger of... of sterility..." He glanced around again to make sure Francesca was not about to rejoin them. "...there would be nothing a doctor could do. As I already explained, chicken pox is a virus, not a bacterial infection. Antibiotics won't work against it. All a doctor can do is treat the symptoms."

"Yeah, well, maybe I'll call a doctor later just to be sure." Ray grabbed him by the arm again and started pulling him upstairs. "I know how you hate hospitals."

"I do not hate hospitals," Ben rejoined, giving into the inevitable with ill grace as he let his friend drag him upstairs. "I simply don't see any need to go to one right now."

"Whatever. Come on grumpy boy, lets get you safely settled before that sister of mine reappears and tries to embarrass the hell out of both of us again."

Ben answered Ray's teasing with a definite look of fear.

He laughed. "Don't worry," Ray assured him. "I'll read her the riot act. And I'm not about to leave here 'til Ma gets home. She won't try anything then. You'll be safe."

"Thanks, Ray."

"Not a problem, Benny."

There was a small part of Frannie that was tempted to hurry, grabbing just the basics and then rushing upstairs to insist upon helping to get Fraser undressed. She grinned unrepentantly at the thought. It was a nice fantasy but hardly smart. Ray would have a cow, and Frase... Despite her brother's thoughts otherwise, she wasn't completely insensitive!

And after the fiasco of her attempted seduction the night he'd been so badly beaten by Frank Zuko's goons... She shuddered, remembering her horror at discovering his injuries. She'd forgotten all about what she'd had on, or the lack there of, and bustled to his side in concern, asking what had happened and what she could do to help. He'd sat frozen, staring at her in a mixture of embarrassment and shock. And then that long, slow, sweeping glance...

He might want to deny it, and he might not have been able to do anything about it, but he'd wanted her. They both knew it. And she'd thought he'd die of embarrassment. If he could have crawled into a hole somewhere to hide, she was sure he would have.

Instead, they both started talking at the same time. He was apologizing for somehow making her think he'd welcome such an advance and she was apologizing for doing it! She was so embarrassed, coming onto a man who looked like he should be at the hospital rather than in his own bed.

The night hadn't gone at all the way she'd hoped. How could it?

But this would be different. She'd show Benton that there was more to her than... She blushed just thinking about what he must have thought of her that night. She'd worked up her courage and approached several of her friends, seeking advice, because she was afraid... She was afraid she'd lost his respect forever, and somehow that was more devastating than if he'd simply told her he wasn't interested. They'd all pretty much disbelieved her and that had hurt too. She'd wound up saying things she shouldn't have.

She hadn't expected the whole sordid tale to get back to Ray. He'd said some very hurtful things to her, but they were said out of love and had made her stop and think.

Later, when Benton had asked to walk her home... she'd been too embarrassed to accept, though she did think it was awfully kind of him to offer. At least it proved that she hadn't destroyed their friendship utterly. But she knew perfectly well, that if she ever wanted anything more, she had her work cut out to repair the damage she'd done.

This was her chance to do that, and she wasn't going to blow it.

So, instead of rushing upstairs, she took her time. She grabbed a bucket from the kitchen and went to the bathroom. Thermometer, rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, calamine lotion, wash cloth, Kleenex, Tylenol, Advil, cough syrup... Back to the kitchen. She put on some soup while she fixed a jug of ice water. She'd make some sun tea for him later. She put the jug, a plastic cup and a straw in the bucket with everything else. Then she fixed Benton a breakfast tray. Chicken soup wasn't exactly morning fare, but if he felt anything like what she'd felt like at sixteen with the chicken pox, his stomach was probably starting to get into the act and she'd have a hard time getting him to eat anything.

Orange juice! Vitamin C was suppose to help fight disease. There was some in the fridge. She added it to the tray and then paused to think if she'd forgotten anything. Ma always prescribed oatmeal bathes too, when the itching got really bad, but they weren't there yet. Besides, she was going to have a major fight on her hands just getting him to let her help with the calamine lotion.

She glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes was long enough. She grabbed a bud vase and stole a flower from the dinning room table. There. Perfect. With a smile, she picked it all up and headed carefully up the stairs. She'd prove to Benton she was more than the shallow twit of a sister she was sure Ray always harped about. She'd take good and proper care of him.

And when he was well, he would thank her. Her smile grew at the thought.

Maybe Ray was right and she was living in a dream world, but those dreams weren't hurting anyone and at least she wasn't afraid to reach for them. She would be the richer for having tried and failed, than if she never tried at all, right?

Balancing the tray carefully, she lifted her hand and knocked.

Ray glanced up from his arms-folded, seated sentry duty at Benny's side and exchanged a questioning glance with the wolf who lay beside the bed. Frannie had knocked? Would wonders never cease! He didn't know what had taken her so long downstairs but he was glad it had. He quickly rose and went to the door, but he didn't open it far enough for her to come in. "Shhhh!" he hushed her instantly, realizing at a glance what had taken her so long. Soup? Was she crazy? "He's asleep. I want him to stay that way."

"I need to take his temperature and give him some Tylenol," Frannie hissed, straining her neck to see around him.

"He's sleeping!" Ray repeated in a hiss.

"Get out of the way unless you want to wear this soup," Frannie insisted and pushed her way forward. Ray had no choice but to give way, knowing too well she'd be happy to dump the soup on him if he didn't. He rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. He'd told Benny he'd be better off at the hospital!

Frannie moved forward, silent as a ghost, and set the tray down on the night stand beside the bed. Even so, she knew Benton must really be out of it not to hear her and waken. She gazed down at him, noting with satisfaction the white cotton of his Henley peeking out from beneath the covers. With a frown, she reached for the top blanket.

Ray grabbed her, jerking her away. "What do you think you're doing!" he hissed angrily. "He's sleeping. Leave the poor guy alone!"

"He's running a fever!" Frannie hissed right back. "He doesn't need that many blankets. It'll only make the fever worse!"

Ray frowned irritably, not trusting her motives for an instant, but recognizing the logic behind her words. "Okay," he relented, "but I'll do it."

Frannie rolled her eyes. It didn't matter who did it, as long as it got done! She folded her arms and watched him carefully fold the coverlet back. Ben turned his head to the side but didn't wake.

"All the way," she whispered when Ray went to straighten. He'd left the heavy folded material over Ben's lower legs. "Take it off the bed if you have too."

Ray glared at her.

"How fast do you think you'd cool off in the summer if you had a blanket over your feet?" she asked pointedly.

With a sigh, he turned back to the bed and lifted the blanket free, turning to put it on the chair for now. "Happy?" he asked.

"He still needs some Tylenol and cough syrup."

Ray shook his head and would have argued the point, but his cell phone decided to ring just then. He grabbed at it frantically in the vain hope of keeping it from waking Benny. A glance at the bed showed his head shifting upon the pillow again, and this time tired gray eyes blinked open in confusion. Damn it! "Vecchio!" he snapped, still keeping his voice down and turning his back on his friend as he dealt with this unwanted intrusion.

As Ray moved away, Frannie took advantage of the moment and slid into place on the edge of the bed. Dief glanced up from where he lay but offered only a single happy thump of his tail before laying his head back upon his paws. Fraser's tossing and turning had kept him up most of the night. Frannie turned her attention back to her patient. "Hey, Benton," she greeted him softly, offering a sympathetic and non-threatening smile.

"Leave him alone, Frannie!" Ray snapped from across the room.

"I'm not going to bite him," she snapped back. She turned back to Fraser with a gentle smile. "He thinks I'm an idiot," she told him even as she laid a gentle hand upon his brow. He gazed up at her in a mixture of embarrassment over his own helplessness... and fear. She chose to ignore the look and frowned. His temperature had gone up. She reached for the rubbing alcohol and a cotton ball. Deftly, she cleaned the thermometer and then checked to make sure it was shaken down before turning back to him. "Open up," she ordered. "Let's see just how bad this fever is."

He obeyed. Frannie glanced at her watch and then went about unpacking her bucket. In the background they could both hear Ray quietly arguing about something. "...Yeah, Frannie!" he exclaimed, drawing her attention. "He's sick! I can't leave him alone with--" There was a pause in which the two siblings exchanged speaking looks. "No, it's just the chicken pox, but-- ...no, but... There's no one else who can do it, sir?" he asked. Ray listened, then closed his eyes and dropped his head in defeat. "On my way," he finally relented and slapped the cell closed. He turned to Fraser in apology. "Huey's got to serve a warrant over on Madison and needs someone with a bit more experience then Elaine to back him up. Her ride along assignment vis-a-vis the Special Academy Program she's taking doesn't include doing felony take-downs before she graduates. Guy's suspected of murdering his wife. Welsh wants me there yesterday, before he decides to flee or I won't have to worry about being late to work again." Dewey's still laid up with that abscessed tooth of his and Huey has to serve a warrant over on Madison. Guy's suspected of murdering his wife. Welsh wants me there yesterday, before he decides to flee or I won't have to worry about being late to work again."

Fraser nodded ready acceptance of the situation. "I understand," he croaked and offered a sharp frown as he cleared his throat.

"I promise not to hop in bed with the poor guy the minute your back is turned," Frannie rolled her eyes in answer to the warning look her brother was drilling into her. "Sheesh! You'd think I was some kinda... I'm not even going to say it!" She threw her hands up in disgust. She frowned down at Fraser as she watched him shift the thermometer in his mouth. "Give me a little credit here, Ray. All I want to do is help him get better."

"Fine," he answered, "but don't be smothering him while you're at it. You take his temperature, give him the Tylenol and then get out. You understand me? He needs to sleep. He doesn't need you fluffing his pillow every five minutes!"

"Excuse me, but who was it who took care of you the last time you got the flu, huh?" she asked. "Ma was down in Florida, remember?"

"I wasn't that sick," Ray argued, refusing to admit that Frannie had been anything other than her normal irritating self when he was flat out on his back during the worst of it.

"Ray," Ben spoke around the thermometer, interrupting them before the 'discussion' could turn into a full scale argument. Frannie glanced at her watch and retrieved the item from his mouth. "I'm sure Francesca knows what to do. I'll be fine." He finished with a massive sneeze. Frannie silently shoved some tissues into his hand.

"Yeah, well, I'll be calling in to check with Ma later," Ray offered, still frowning at his sister, "and if I find out you've been bugging him too much..."

"I'm not going to be bugging him!" she exclaimed even as she frowned at the thermometer.

"You throw her out if she does, Benny," he ordered the man in the bed. "No Mr. Nice-guy. Promise me."

Ben shook his head, looking utterly exhausted. "Ray, I'm sure--"

"Promise me!" Ray insisted.

"I'll be fine, Ray," Ben insisted back, refusing to promise to be rude! He shoved his head back into the pillows, wincing when even that slight movement hurt. His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like pond scum, he ached all over and he was starting to itch. The last thing he needed was an argument!

Ray cast a pointed look Frannie's way she easily read. "103.5," she answered the unasked question with a shake of her head. "Ibuprofen and a sponge bath." She threw a warning glare of her own Ray's way as she stood and took hold of Fraser's remaining blankets, stripping them down to the foot of the bed before either man could react. Fraser was left lying in his long sleeved Henley and starched boxers. She refused to acknowledge the sight or what it did to her pulse. "And don't be giving me any grief," she ordered both of them. Long sleeves? She was going to have to get rid of that. "If that doesn't break the fever, you're going into a luke warm tub. After that, I call 911. No arguments, clear?"

"Why Advil and not Tylenol?" Ray asked, hesitating to leave.

"It works faster against fever," she answered, pouring Fraser a glass of water.

"And you don't think he needs an ambulance now?"

"Not yet," she decided without glancing up. "We'll see if this works first. It could be just the blankets made him spike." She handed Ben two tablets and then helped support his head as she held a straw to his lips. Dief watched her as avidly as Ray. To both their amazements, her touch remained completely cool and detached. After he'd taken the medicine, she glanced pointedly back at Ray. "You trying to get fired?"

Ray frowned, torn between worry for his friend and the fact that his boss was more than slightly pissed. Ben was looking even worse than he had only a few minutes ago! Unfortunately, he really had no choice. He couldn't risk losing his job. He was going to have to trust Frannie to deal with it. Ma would be home soon, and he had no doubt Benny would be in good hands then. With a nod for Fraser and a last parting glare for Frannie, he hurried out the door. "I'll be calling!" he yelled over his shoulder in both reassurance for Benny and warning for Frannie.

There was nothing else he could do.

Ben listened to Ray hurry down the stairs and watched as Francesca rose to take her bucket to the upstairs bathroom. He heard the water turned on even as the front door opened and shut again. He suddenly realized he was alone in the house with Francesca, in bed ... about to be given a sponge bath by her...

This was not acceptable!

He forced himself upright on the bed with a slight grunt. Lying down seemed to have only magnified his many aches and pains, 'though he knew in fact it was simply a side effect of the fever gripping his body. He'd been sick so infrequently in his life that this was a cognitive recognition, not an experience that he could really remember. Forced to realize once again that he was far more ill than he wanted to admit, he gave up the thought of trying to get up and dress before Ray's sister returned. As much as he might want to see himself as capable of doing so and then returning home to fend for himself, he was beginning to realize he couldn't. He doubted he could make it down the stairs without falling. Instead, he reached for the blankets at the foot of the bed and quickly grabbed hold of the sheet. Francesca returned as he was drawing it up over himself and lying down again with a soft groan.

"What do you think you're doing?" she protested, hurrying forward as quickly as the water in the bucket she carried would allow. He closed his eyes and prayed she would just go away. "Benton..." She put her bucket down and reached for the sheet. He gripped it tightly. "I know you're cold, Benton," she offered gently, sympathizing with how badly she knew he must be feeling even as she tried to take the sheet away. "It's the effects of the fever. We have to get you cooled off."

It wasn't working. He blinked open his eyes and stared up at her uneasily. "That's all right, Francesca," he answered, and was disturbed to have to clear his throat again before he could continue. "I'm sure removing the blankets and giving me the medicine was sufficient. A sponge bath isn't necessary. Really."

"I'm not trying anything, Frase," she assured him. "It's going to be several minutes before the Advil can kick in. We need to get your fever down now." She tugged gently.

Her only answer was a glassy, wide-eyed look and a tighter grip on the sheet.

She tugged again. "You gotta let go of the sheet, Benton."

"No." He wasn't about to let go of the sheet, and that was that!

"Frase, I can't give you a sponge bath through the sheet."

Exactly. "What would your mother say if she were to return and discover you giving me a sponge bath?"

"She'd tell you to stop acting like a child and let me help you!" Frannie answered readily. "Then she'd send Maria out for a big tub of ice cream."

Somehow, she'd known that the idea of sending Maria out for a tub of ice cream would distract him. He relaxed just a fraction as he absorbed the mental image, but it was enough. Francesca, yanked sharply on the sheet, tearing it from his grip before he knew what was happening. "Francesca!" he exclaimed, suddenly finding himself minus even the slight protection the sheet had afforded him. He felt his cheeks heat as he hurriedly lowered a hand to assure that the opening of his boxer shorts remained closed. She ignored him, concentrating on stripping the sheet to the end of the bed, well out of ready reach.

"That's better," she proclaimed and put her fists on her hips. She knew how to be stubborn too and she wasn't afraid to fight dirty! Seeing his look of shock and rather obvious blush, Frannie sighed and bent to retrieve a towel she'd brought with her from the upstairs bathroom. "Men!" she offered in exasperation. She stood again and draped it smoothly over his groin. "I was married for two years, Fraser," she informed him curtly. "You don't have to be modest around me."

He dragged his hand out from under the towel and made sure it was covering him as best it could. "Be that as it may--" He interrupted himself with a sneeze. Damn! It was hard enough to argue his point without being rendered incapable of completing a sentence!

Francesca handed several more tissues over without comment. He blew his nose, again, and then continued. "Be that as it may, this is hardly appropriate. And while a fever of 103 might be high; by itself, such a fever isn't worth undue concern. I'm still quite cognizant and alert. Besides, I was under blankets before you took it. A sponge bath is not necessary."

Francesca answered by putting her hand upon his brow. "Really?" she offered sarcastically. "It's 103.5, not 103, and I suspect arguing with me about it has only made it worse. Now, you can either sit up and take your shirt off or I can drench it and the rest of you with this wash clothe." She held up the dripping item in question. "'Course, I'm likely to drench the bed too, in which case you'll be sleeping in my bed tonight..." She offered him a wicked grin. "Your choice!"

Somehow, the mere thought of having to sleep in her bed was embarrassing, especially when she smiled at him that way! Fraser decided to try bargaining. "Can't -- Can't we just wait a few minutes to see if the Advil kicks in?" he suggested. "I really am quite uncomfortable with this whole idea, Francesca."

Such an honest and forthright admission of 'discomfort' was hitting below the belt. Men weren't supposed to admit to such weaknesses! The fact that part of his disquiet stemmed from a need to protect her honor, even from herself, only made Frannie feel even worse about ever having teased him. Unfortunately, none of it changed the fact that he was running a high fever.

"I'm sorry, Frase," she sighed and shook her head, "I know you don't like it, but I really do think you need a sponge bath. No flirting, teasing or joking going on here: Just several years of helping Maria with the kids. You're too hot and we have to get your fever down. Please..."

Unknown to her, she'd pulled out the big guns with that 'please'. Fraser sighed, torn between the fact that she was obviously worried about him and a moral imperative to maintain his modesty.

"Please, Frase?" she repeated.

Damn... With a sigh he gave up and nodded. He could not refuse the very real concern in her eyes. He lifted his head and fought not to groan again as he forced himself upright. Suddenly, Francesca's cool hands were behind his shoulders and on his arm, helping him to sit up. Her touch was his best gage of exactly how hot he was.

"Sore, huh?" Frannie sympathized with him as she helped him upward. "Fever does that to you after a while. I had the chicken pox at sixteen, and I know I was miserable. Don't worry though, the Advil will help with that too. There we go..." She released him as he came upright, then reached for the bottom of his shirt.

He froze. "I'll do it," he said sharply, then added a, "thank you," to soften it. He suited action to words, ignoring his muscles' many complaints as he crossed his arms and took hold of the shirt to lift it over his head. He silently chastised himself for his weakness. He had the chicken pox for heaven's sake!

Frannie kept silent as she watched him struggle to remove the shirt. She stopped him before he had it half lifted and reached toward his throat.

He shied away from the unexpected move and then realized he'd forgotten to undo the buttons at his neck. Given the amount of pain just lifting the shirt was causing him, it would be foolish to insist upon undoing them himself, especially as she was already doing it. Her touch was light and impersonal as she carefully plucked at the fabric, threading buttons through button holes. She glanced up and caught him looking at her. The dark brown eyes gazed into his blue... He knew she was remembering the last time they'd been so close and shared such a look, when she'd come to his apartment after Zuko's men had beaten him... She'd been wearing Channel no 5 then. This time it was an herbal scent he caught...

"Chamomile." Ben was more than startled to hear his father identify the scent for him. He jerked and glanced to the side, shattering the moment. "A nice earthy scent!" Bob declared happily.

Frannie jerked as well, though not because she'd heard his father's voice. She gave herself a little shake, realizing that she'd been staring and likely embarrassed him again! She dropped her eyes and frowned at her frozen hands, ordering them back to the task at hand even as she felt a blush touch her cheeks. Blush? Her?! Here she was supposed to be proving she was capable of helping him and instead she was practically drooling on the man.

"Nice girl," Bob continued, eyeing Francesca thoughtfully. "I've seen her around before, haven't I? It's more than obvious she likes you, Son. Why don't you go ahead and kiss her?"

Ben stared in disbelief at his father, thanking heaven that Francesca could neither see nor hear the ghostly apparition. He wished he were as equally blessed - at least at this particular moment. His father certainly had the most atrocious timing! "Do you mind?" he hissed.

Frannie jerked her hands away, realizing that she'd finished the buttons, and thinking he was telling her to back off. She felt like a fool, freezing like that again! Did she have no self-control at all? The man was just too damn handsome. "Sorry," she offered contritely and stood, giving him back his personal space.

Ben glanced at Francesca in surprise, realizing she'd thought he was addressing her, and-- Well, he couldn't explain! She'd think he was delirious.

"W'up! Bad move there, Son," Bob advised him. "'Shoulda seized the moment while you could. You're not getting any younger you know."

"I'm sick!"

"I know!" Francesca surprised him again. Distracted by his father's outrageous comments, he'd forgotten her again and now kicked himself soundly. "I wasn't trying anything, really." She blushed harder, fighting to ignore the fact that she'd certainly been tempted!

"Sick? With chicken pox?!" Bob practically laughed at him. "That's kid's stuff! A few spots and a good case of the sniffles. A little roll in the proverbial hay would probably do you a world of good! And she's already had it, so no worry there. Go for it, Son!"

Ben stared at him again in utter disbelief. Perhaps he was delirious after all!

"Go on..." Bob urged unrepentantly.

Ben shook his head, wishing his father would simply go away, and glanced back at Francesca. She was biting her lip and had her arms wrapped around her. She looked like he'd practically slapped her! How in the world was he going to get out of this mess?

He frowned, trying to remember exactly what he'd said and how she'd answered... "I know," he responded belatedly. "I didn't mean... I was talking to myself," he finally offered, which wasn't exactly a lie. "Could you...?" He lifted his arms slightly, indicating that he needed help. In reality, he didn't. Well, he might, but he suspected he could still manage to do the job despite the pain such movement was sure to bring. He was a Mountie after all and had suffered far worse than a simple fever before! Still, if it helped Francesca realize he hadn't been chastising her, it was certainly worth a small portion of his foolish pride.

The simple procedure hurt quite a bit more than he wanted to admit. When the shirt finally slipped free, he closed his eyes and bit his tongue as he allowed himself to fall back upon the bed, unable to believe how exhausted simply removing it had left him! He also fought not to groan as every muscle in his body offered a protest when he hit the soft mattress. Francesca was right. His fever must be much worse than he thought!

"Look at you!" Bob chided him. "Weak as a kitten! You're acting like a child." Ben blinked his eyes open to glare at his father. The older man squinted and leaned closer as he added, "And frankly you look like one. Look at all those spots!"

Ben glanced down at his chest, discovering that it was covered in hundreds of tiny red blotches, only a few of which as yet were beginning to rise into the recognizable chicken pox blister. Any doubt as to his diagnosis was instantly allayed.

"You look like Freddie Coobrick did that time he got drunk and decided he just had to go skinny dipping in the middle of July. The mosquitoes were so thick you could practically walk on the water but you couldn't tell Freddie that! Practically sucked him dry, they did. Now that was one sick young man."

Ben ignored his father and laid his hand on his chest in an unconscious attempt to verify he wasn't imagining things. He hadn't noticed any such spots this morning when he was dressing. Of course, he hadn't been looking either. His hand and arm were also showing signs of the viral infection that was attacking his system.

"Don't scratch!" Bob ordered sharply.

"Don't scratch!" Frannie unknowingly echoed him, taking Ben's hand by the wrist and moving it to his side. "I know it itches, but you can't scratch. Not only do they scar if you do, but you don't want to get them infected. Besides, scratching only makes it worse." She laid her hand upon his brow again and then reached for the bucket. "Let's get this fever down and then I can smear some calamine lotion over all of them. That'll take care of the itch."

Ben closed his eyes and drew in a sharp breath as she laid the wet wash clothe upon his chest. It felt like ice, though he knew it wasn't. He kept his eyes closed and turned his head, offering no protest as she continued with her ministrations.

"Nice girl," he heard his father comment again. "She'd make a good mother."

Ben blinked his eyes open again, wishing he dared retort aloud, but was not really surprised to discover that his father had disappeared. With a sigh, he closed his eyes again. Perhaps if he tried hard enough he could actually go to sleep and thus prevent any further embarrassment to either himself or Francesca. He hoped she could break the fever quickly...

"Hi, there," Huey greeted the toddler who opened the door. "Is your daddy--"

"--Timmy? What are--" The man in question appeared in the kitchen doorway behind the four year old, took one look at the Jack and Ray, and bolted.

"He's going out the window!" Jack shouted. Ray sprang past him and the kid even as the suspect took a running leap through the third story window, out onto the fire escape.

"Damn it," Ray muttered as he stuck his head out. Up? No, down. Well, that was something at least. Hadn't he just been through this scenario yesterday with Fraser? No gun at least. That was another plus. He quickly climbed out onto the fire escape and started down. Fraser made this stuff look so damn easy...

"Freeze!" A pair of uniformed officers drew their weapons on the fleeing suspect before he could leave the alley. In less than a minute, he was cuffed and being read his rights.

"Good exercise?" Jack teased him a few minutes later as he joined him on the street before the apartment building. Ray was nursing a skinned knuckle he'd gotten on the way down and was just happy he hadn't broken his fool leg. "I thought the perps only did this sorta stunt when Fraser was around?"

Ray ignored the teasing, pulling Jack aside so the social worker who was trying to comfort 'Timmy' could exit the building. The sight of the kid only fueled Ray's anger. "Jerk never even thought about his son," he muttered with a glare for the man who was now being put in a squad car.

"He'd have probably been next on the father's hit list after the guy went through his wife's insurance money," Huey offered with a shake of his head. It was cases like this that got to him the most. He held up a clear plastic evidence bag with a disassembled gun and full clip in it. "Look at what I found on the kitchen table. Wanta bet ballistic matches it to the bullets taken from his wife's body?"

Ray wasn't about to take that bet. His cell phone rang just then in any case, interrupting any further discussion. Huey shook his head again and moved off toward the patrol car as Ray flipped the device open. "Vecchio," he answered succinctly.

"Detective," Thatcher's cool tones acknowledged his answer. "Inspector Thatcher. Apparently Turnbull thinks you can tell me why my Deputy Liaison Officer isn't in today of all days when I need him the most! Something about ... a head cold?" she added in a rather frosty tone.

"Chicken pox," Vecchio corrected her.

"...Chicken pox?" she echoed in surprised disbelief.

"Chicken pox," he confirmed. "'Thought it was a head cold when I kidnaped him this morning but he was starting to break out in little red spots by the time we got to my house. He was also running a fever of a hundred and three point five when I left him with my sister, so I'm afraid you're going to have to find someone else to cover for him for a few days."

"Your sister?" Thatcher repeated, clearly aghast. "You left Fraser in the care of your sister, Detective? When he's ill and defenseless!"

"Relax, Inspector. Even Frannie wouldn't attack him when he's down." I think, he added silently. "Besides, Ma was due home any minute. He's in good hands."

"I'm sure your mother is a fine woman, Detective. It's your sister I'm concerned about," she snapped. "If he was running that kind of a fever, you should've taken him directly to the hospital!"

"I offered but he refused. You know how stubborn he is. You're lucky I picked him up this morning. Otherwise, he'd have walked to work and you'd have been forced to call an ambulance when he collapsed, if he made it there at all."

"Which only leads me to believe you should have taken him to the hospital regardless. If you had called me, I would have ordered him to go!"

"We thought it was a bad head cold!" Ray protested. "We didn't see the spots until we got to my place, and Frannie was the one who realized what it was. Not me. We didn't know how bad the fever was until we got him in bed." Ray glanced over to where Jack was leaning on the roof of the patrol car talking to their collar. He needed to get over there. "Don't worry. Frannie helped Ma and Maria nurse the kids through the chicken pox last year. I'm sure he's fine."

"I'm glad you are, Detective, but I'm not," Thatcher stated bluntly. "You could've at least stayed with him until your mother got home. I've seen your sister around him before. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her!"

"Hey!" Ray snapped. "She's still my sister! Watch what you say." He was the only one who could get away with making such comments.

"My apologies, Detective," she allowed coolly, "but you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean and I already warned her off. Like I said, my Ma was due any minute. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of a murder investigation here. Got anymore questions, call my house. Bye." Without further ado, he slapped the cell closed and headed over to do his job.

Ma Vecchio paused outside the guest room and listened. She heard definite snoring coming from within. The poor boy must be exhausted, she thought, and so badly congested! She certainly hoped he didn't normally snore like that! It had been a long day for the poor man. Much to his horror, his stomach had rather emphatically rejected the idea of lunch. Fortunately, Francesca had been wise enough to position a small trash can within easy reach but the simple effort of throwing up had left him shaking badly. It had also sent his fever sky rocketing again.

It was about then, that his boss, Inspector Thatcher, had come by to check on him. She'd insisted on seeing her subordinate herself. Francesca had brought her up just as Ma was finishing another sponge bath.

Simple surprise at Fraser's appearance had frozen her to the spot for a very long moment. Francesca's voice introducing her to her mother had broken the spell. She shook her head and cleared her throat, remembering belatedly to breathe as she tore her eyes from the scantily clad officer covered in spots and nodded a greeting to the very motherly figure who was caring for him.

"Do not come in here unless you've had the chicken pox!" Ma had warned her. Then she'd stood and retrieved Benton's sheet for him. The poor boy was mortified by the visit. Francesca really should have knocked first!

Ma had not much cared for his boss, at least at first. She'd been rather stiff and officious, almost as uncomfortable checking on her officer as he was to have her there. However, Ma had soon seen behind her rather proud facade. It was real concern that drew her forward, had her gently questioning his condition and care, and then asking if there were anything she could do to help. The iron maiden routine was a mask she donned for propriety's sake, but there was a warm heart beating behind it.

Ma had assured her that though Benton was suffering a rather virulent outbreak of the disease, as Meg could see quite clearly, he was being cared for by those who loved him and who had cared for others with the chicken pox before. They wouldn't let anything happen to one of their own. And as it happened, there was something she could do to help. Ma had been going to ask Ray but she knew how important it was for someone to feel they were being of use when another they cared about needed them. She would still call Ray about picking up a change of clothes for his friend (she doubted Benton wanted this woman going through his personal items) but there was another item at his place this woman could fetch without causing him undue embarrassment.

"Someone needs to go to his apartment and pick up the dog food for his wolf," she'd explained. "Can she have your keys, Benton? Someone should also get rid of any perishable food in your refrigerator. You don't want to come home to the smell of rotten milk."

"Mr. Mustafi--" Fraser had been interrupted by a coughing spell. He'd winced in pain as it passed and fought to catch his breath. "Mr. Mustafi has the spare key. Apartment 3L."

Meg had noted the wince and frowned in concern. "Does it hurt to breathe, Ben?"

He shook his head, not wanting to cause unnecessary concern.

"It is the fever," Ma diagnosed. "It makes him sore all over." She'd offered him a little ice water to help him clear his throat and then laid her hand upon his brow to check his fever again but the Tylenol seemed to be working. A glance at the bedside clock had told her it wasn't time for more cough syrup yet.

Then, with all the indomitable authority of a mother and grandmother, she'd called an end to the visit, declaring that Benton needed his rest. His superior hadn't argued. Instead, she'd wished Ben well and gone to fetch the dog food. When she'd returned less than an hour later, Ben had been slathered in pink and sleeping once more. She'd left again without disturbing him and promised to visit again tomorrow.

That had all happened some hours ago, however, and it was time to check on him again. Hoping that she would not wake him, Ma gently pushed open the door and was surprised to see the dark head turn toward her, the eyes blinking open, but ... then to hear another loud snore?

She frowned in confusion and pushed the door open further. A furry white and gray head suddenly lifted and turned toward her. The sound instantly stopped.

"Was this your dog I heard snoring like that?" she asked in surprise. The wolf had stayed with them before and never had she heard such a noise. But then, he had been relegated to Ray's room during the night, and she wasn't likely too.

"I'm afraid so," Benton croaked and frowned sharply as he cleared his throat yet again. This brought another wince to his face.

"Is your throat getting sore, mi caro?" Ma asked as she came forward to lay a cool hand upon his pink coated forehead once again.

"A little," he admitted, though the pain that had caused him to wince had actually been in his chest.

Ma ordered him to open his mouth and turned his head toward the light. "Yes," she clucked her tongue in sympathy. "You have the blisters inside your mouth as well. You must make sure to rinse your mouth well if you throw up again. I am afraid you are going to be truly miserable for the next few days, mi caro."

"I'm sorry to be such a bother," he apologized wearily.

"Mi figlio, but do you not know you are with family, Benton?" she asked. "You care for us and we care for you. This is the way of a family and always will be. You are no bother!" She suddenly turned to frown at Diefenbaker. "You must go," she ordered firmly. "Your master cannot possibly sleep with you snoring like that!"

"Actually, I'm quite used to it," Ben protested, not wanting to have the animal disturb the rest of the house.

"Perhaps when you're well, but now? No." She would not hear of it. "He can sleep with Ray tonight. Ray has taken care of him before. He will be home soon. Besides, I am sure he needs to go out."

Dief needed no further encouragement beyond the reminder that he had a bladder. Besides, unless he was mistaken, dinner was soon to be served downstairs. He was certain he could convince one of Maria's kids that he needed something more than dry dog food. He rose and gave a little stretch. Then, after glancing at his rather odd looking pack mate and deciding that whatever strange mange he was suffering wasn't going to kill him, he headed out the door.

"He will be fine," Ma assured her patient with a gentle pat upon his arm. "Rest, mi caro. I will be back to check on you soon."

Ben sighed and reached for the Kleenex box as she pulled the door to behind her, leaving it cracked in case he needed to call out - not that he would ever do so. Despite her kind words and the gentle concern that everyone was showing him, he did feel like a bother. He wasn't at all sure how, but somehow he would have to find a way to repay their kindness. In the mean time, all he could do was blow his nose and try to go back to sleep.


What in the--

(((Whine! Scratch! Scratch!)))

Ray frowned as he was dragged from sleep by Dief scratching at the bedroom door. "Ah, man!" he groused angrily. He'd known the last two nights of uninterrupted sleep despite furball's presence was too good to last. He'd let the dog out right before going to bed! He glared at his clock, squinting to focus... "Two thirty-eight," he read. "No way. No way! I watched you go earlier. And I am not letting you out to terrorize the Battaglia's cat! Go back to sleep." He threw a pillow at the dog for good measure, not thinking until after the fact that a pillow was probably what the stupid wolf was angling for...

(((Bark! Bark!)))

Ray was sitting up in bed like a shot! "Shhhh!" he commanded sharply. "You trying to wake the whole house! What is with you?"


"Okay! Okay already!" Ray rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tossed the blankets back. "But that's the last time you get any of Ma's pasta fazool!"

Dief ignored him, jumping up to claw at the doorknob.

"Stop it already!" Ray hissed as he shuffled his feet into slippers and slipped a robe on. "You ruin the woodwork and I'll have Fraser take it out of your savings!" Feeling very much put upon and completely uncharitable toward the wolf, Ray rose and went to the door. Dief was out it in a flash but much to Ray's confusion he headed right, not left toward the steps. "What the--" Ray stuck his head out into the hall and just caught sight of the white tail disappearing into Ben's room. He grimaced and rolled his eyes toward heaven. Ma was going to have his head if the wolf woke Fraser!

After two days in bed, the poor guy was starting to look like a pink popsicle that had been attacked by a million ants. Ray had to fight not to wince whenever he went in there for a visit, or to help him walk to the bathroom. The fever had left him sore all over and rather unsteady on his feet. Well, the fever, plus not being able to eat decently. The blisters in his mouth even made it hard for him to speak. Ma and Frannie were taking turns nursing him, which really wasn't that hard once they got control of the fever. All he wanted to do was sleep. Maria was in charge of keeping the kids quiet so he could. Ray was in charge of... well, Dief for one thing!

Quickly, he followed in the wolf's wake, hoping somehow to talk the animal into coming back to his room and leaving Benny alone.

(((Bark! Bark! Bark!!!)))

Ray's alarms suddenly went off. The wolf 'was' trying to wake the house, which meant something was wrong with Benny! He rushed into Fraser's room to find him sitting on the edge of his bed glaring at Dief.

A huge sense of relief flooded through Ray. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to find but he wouldn't have been surprised to see Benny lying in the middle of the floor.

"Sheesh! That dog of yours gave me a scare!" Ray told his friend with a smile, then noted that Dief was still very agitated and frowned. The wolf was standing in front of Fraser, just out of petting range, and barked again.

"Quiethh!" Fraser croaked and was rewarded with a sudden and violent coughing fit.

Ray was frowning even harder as he hurried to Benny's side. Ben ignored him, reaching for the Kleenex. Ray shoved the box into his hand even as he reached for the switch on the table lamp and flooded the room with light.

"What's going on?" Frannie's voice intruded over the sound of Fraser's continued cough. Cinching her thick terry cloth robe tighter about her tiny waist, she hurried forward as well.

"Back off, Frannie," Ray stopped her with a hand to her shoulder before she could reach Benny's side. Benny had finally stopped coughing and was now just trying to catch his breath. He wrapped an arm about his ribs as if he were in pain. "Let the guy breathe for a second, will ya?" he demanded. Damn, but Benny didn't look good.

"I don't like the sound of that cough," Frannie decided, easily shaking off her brother's hold and moving forward to kneel beside Dief in front of the bed.

"I'm -- I'm fine," Benny managed to mumble as he fought to catch his breath. He had to stop and clear his throat again and this time he spit into the Kleenex he held to his mouth.

"Let me see that," Frannie demanded, reaching for the used tissue. Ben frowned and pulled it aside.

"Ewww!" Ray exclaimed. "Gross!"

Frannie ignored them both, taking the tissue despite Ben's obvious embarrassment and reluctance to hand it over. "Stop being a baby, both of you!" she ordered, examining the tissue. She frowned sharply. "You're coughing up blood!"

Both men glanced at the pink tinged tissue she held open to the light.

"Ithh's justhh -- my mouthh," Ben decided. His mouth and throat were both raw because of the blisters. He wasn't surprised they were starting to bleed. "I'm fine!" he repeated. Some of the forcefulness was lost within the hoarse sound. All he wanted was for these two to go away so he could curl up in a nice miserable ball and go back to sleep! First, he had to catch his breath and that was proving hard to do.

"Take a deep breath and hold it," Frannie ordered.

Ben frowned, knowing it would hurt to breathe too deeply but that she wouldn't leave him alone until he complied. He did as she requested, or he tried to. He was immediately hit with another tight, wracking cough that had him doubling over in pain.

Frannie nodded and glanced back at her brother. "Call an ambulance," she ordered, and reached out to steady Ben as he suddenly swayed on the edge of the bed.

The hospital was the last place Ben wanted to go. Yes, he was sick. He would even dare to describe himself as being very sick; but it was still only the chicken pox! He was a healthy man in good physical condition, despite the virus now gripping him. He should be able to endure what it had to throw at him.

Ray suddenly reappeared to hover beside his sister and mother, telling them the ambulance was on its way. Ben was quite chagrined to realize he'd roused the whole house when Mrs. Vecchio appeared in a quilted satin robe, looking quite concerned. Tony and Maria both came and went, probably having to check on and reassure their children. Ben hated being the cause of so much trouble!

"An ampthulanth isn'ith -- nethethary," he tried to protest but none of them were listening and he was having to work too hard at breathing to bother arguing further. Given that the ambulance was already in route, it was a moot point anyway. They were talking at and around him but he really wasn't hearing it. Mostly reassurances. Half of it seemed to be in Italian anyway. Lord but he was so tired. He tried to lie down again but that only made breathing more difficult. He had to sit up again to catch his breath first...

Someone was suddenly lifting his head and putting something over his face. Momentary fear sent a serge of adrenaline running through his system as he tried to bat it away. He was having enough trouble breathing without-- His wrist was held down as a male voice he didn't recognize droned at him. He blinked his eyes, fighting to clear his rather muddled thoughts, and realized it was an oxygen mask he now had on his face. Had he passed out? The paramedics couldn't have arrived that quickly...

He took several conscious breaths, as deep as he dared without triggering another coughing fit, and felt his head clearing in response. Some of the overpowering tiredness he felt fell away as well. A secondary wave of fear hit him and was quickly suppressed as he realized he seemed to actually be in need of such emergency medical attention after all. But he still didn't understand why? Unless... was he developing a secondary infection on top of the chicken pox?

"Feeling a little better there, Mr. Fraser?" the paramedic asked him even as Ben realized belatedly that the man had a stethoscope pressed to his back. "Can you give me a deep breath, maybe?"

Ben shook his head. A deep breath was the last thing he wanted to give them. It would only result in pain and a violent coughing fit that he suspected would indeed cause him to faint. He needed to finish catching his breath first. The mask didn't want to fit particularly well and, riding atop the blisters and scabs upon his face also meant it quite uncomfortable, but it was helping him to think again.

Had he spiked another fever? Perhaps gotten dehydrated? He knew he should have been drinking more but... He frowned. What was wrong with him? Bronchitis, perhaps? Was it possible for the chicken pox to spread to his lungs as it had to his mouth? There was knowledge nagging at the back of his mind, awareness that tried to piece the puzzle together and knew what the problem was, but his thoughts wouldn't clear enough for him to be able to grasp whatever it was.

He felt a sharp sting in his arm and glanced down to realize they were starting an IV. He had to consciously focus his thoughts to hear what the droning voice was telling him. There was now a minty taste to the oxygen he was breathing. He had no idea what it was but it seemed to be helping. He took a deeper breath and immediately started coughing again. The mask was pulled aside as one of the paramedics helped support him. The coughing was not as violent as what he'd been enduring and was far more productive, and then the mask was being slipped back over his face again. There was a device of some kind with a medication cup attached to the oxygen mask. As the air passed through the cup, the medication was turned into a mist. This must be what he was tasting. He noted again that it seemed to be working. His breathing continued to improve and his thoughts became clearer even as the paramedics repositioned themselves and he suddenly found them moving him to a waiting gurney.

A large part of him wanted to protest the move but, as his thoughts cleared, he became more aware of exactly how bad off he'd been before the paramedics arrived. It was a frightening thought to realize he might have slowly asphyxiated if it weren't for them. He still didn't know what was wrong but he was beginning to suspect pneumonia. As much as he didn't want to go to the hospital, he was forced to agree that it was where he belonged, at least until his lungs were clear.

The paramedics finished positioning him on the gurney which had been adjusted to an upright position. Straps were deftly threaded to secure him for transport, the IV bag was tucked under his leg and blankets were tossed in place.

"Don't worry about a thing, Benny," he heard Ray saying. "I'll be right behind you and meet you at the emergency room. Everything will be okay."

"I'm coming too," Frannie declared, racing from the room to get dressed only to have Ray follow after her, arguing that she wasn't coming. Ben offered a weary smile for the painfully predictable pair. They were more worried about the situation than he was! He knew it would be okay. It was just the chicken pox after all. He frowned as he considered the possibility of pneumonia again but dismissed the concern, refusing to borrow trouble. It might not be pneumonia. In any case, he knew the doctors would do everything they could to help him, and that there was nothing he himself could do to affect the outcome except let them do their jobs. When everything was said and done, it was the Vecchios who needed reassuring, not him.

He sighed and braced himself with his arms as the gurney began its rather cumbersome exit from the room and down the stairway. He passed Ma Vecchio as she held her rosary and crossed herself. There was no doubt she was offering a prayer for him. Again he thought of how he hated being the cause of so much worry and concern...

The trip to the hospital was swift and uneventful. The paramedic attending him asked a series of questions, basically reviewing and confirming what Ray had already told them. His vitals were checked repeatedly and the man tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Ben was doing much better by the time they arrived at the hospital.

Once there, he was transferred to an emergency room bed and again subjected to a battery of questions. The oxygen mask was switched to a nasal canula and the flow rate adjusted. They tried to get him to lie down, but he found that doing so still caused him difficulty in breathing so they finally adjusted the bed upwards. Notes were taken, tests were ordered and then everyone pretty much disappeared to take care of other patients in greater need than he.

Ray appeared shortly to sit with him. He was not surprised to learn that Francesca too was waiting but in the emergency room lobby. It was a bit of a wait. Ben hardly considered himself an emergency and apparently the hospital was rather busy tonight. Ma Vecchio and the others had been reassured by the paramedics and Ray had managed to convince them not to load the kids in the car. They had promised to visit him in the morning. Well, it was the morning, but rather ridiculously early in the morning. They would at least wait until the sun had risen.

It was about two hours before a pulmonologist appeared and reviewed his case, then set about giving him another breathing treatment. Shortly after he left, the mobile X-ray machine finally appeared and Ray was forced to leave. An hour later, when he was finally allowed back in, he discovered Ben dozing uncomfortably on the elevated gurney. He had been hooked to several machines including a portable EKG that wasn't turned on at the moment, and a strange white device that was clamped to one of his fingers.

He looked terrible.

They'd made him strip out of the RCMP sweats he'd been wearing and had given him a blue and white print hospital gown. He was pale and sweating and had kicked off the blanket they'd given him. Much of the crusty coating of pink calamine lotion had worn off. The blisters and crusting scabs of healing pox marks were very stark against his pale skin. If he weren't sleeping, Ray was sure he'd be completely miserable. It was this that got Ray really irritated with the typical hurry up and wait routine.

He decided it was time to start ruffling some feathers.

"We are doing the best we can, Mr. Vecchio," the Head Nurse of the ER answered, only half listening to his complaints.

"Your best isn't good enough!" he ranted, working hard to keep from yelling. He started yelling and someone would call security. That would end his efforts far too quickly. He had to walk a careful line here.

"I'll go check on him," one of the nurses behind the desk volunteered and, with an exchange of nods between the two, quickly moved to do so.

Ray sighed in exasperation. "I don't want a nurse to 'check on him!'" he complained irritably. "Look. He's the Deputy Liaison Officer for the Canadian Consulate!" He decided to try throwing titles around to get their attention. "I call them and you're going to have the entire Canadian government breathing down your neck! He came in by ambulance for Christ's sake. The guy is having trouble breathing. He's been sitting in that damn room for almost four hours now and no one's doing a damn thing! I want to see a doctor, not another nurse!"

"Problem, Carol?"

Ray turned to find a white coated doctor behind him. He reached around Ray to hand 'Carol' a chart.

"Next of kin for Fraser, 35 year old male, brought in by ambulance suffering from respiratory distress and an acute case of chicken pox. Dr. Leonard was handling it but he got pulled away when we got hit with that multiple MVA." Even as she spoke, she handed the chart over. The unknown doctor flipped it open and scanned through the papers far too quickly.

"Nebulizer?" he asked the nurse curtly.

"About an hour ago."

The nurse who'd disappeared to check on Fraser reappeared, hurrying on about her duties even as she called her report to the head nurse. "He's sleeping peacefully."

"Peacefully?" Ray echoed. "In this mad house?!"

The doctor turned back him. "Look, Mr--?"

"--Vecchio," he supplied. "Detective Vecchio."

The use of titles obviously didn't impress these guys. "Detective Vecchio," he repeated, trying (and failing) not to sound patronizing. "I realize you're worried, but Mr. Fraser is doing fine. We're presently dealing with several victims of a multiple car pileup on Wacker that came in just after he did. Unfortunately, most of them are in far worse shape than he is, so I'm afraid he's--"

"--Excuse me." Another doctor, this one a woman, stepped up to the desk and interrupted them. "I'm Dr. Stewart. I was called in to consult on a case of adult onset chicken pox?"

"Thank god!" Ray rolled his eyes heavenward.

"Mr. Fraser," the still unknown doctor Ray had been arguing with supplied and grabbed up the chart again to hand to the new doctor. "Detective Vecchio here can show you where he is. Doctor Leonard is primary but rather busy at the moment. Multiple MVA. Excuse me." And with that he was gone, leaving Ray with the new doctor.

Dr. Stewart offered a little shrug for the controlled chaos around them as she began scanning the chart. "This is why I didn't specialize in Emergency Medicine." She turned back to the Head Nurse. "X-rays?" she demanded simply.

Without pausing in what she was saying to another doctor, the nurse turned to a desk behind her, scanned the surface and grabbed up a large manila envelope. She handed it over to Dr. Stewart without missing a beat.

Dr. Stewart turned back to Ray and waved him to lead the way.

"I hope you're going to do more than give him another of those damn breathing treatments," Vecchio shot over his shoulder as he hurried away from the desk.

"I suspect I will, Mr. Vecchio, I suspect I will."

Ray frowned. Something about the way she said that sent shivers up his back and suddenly made him reverse his wish, now hoping that another breathing treatment was all that Benny needed...

The sound of a beeping alarm close at hand managed to penetrate through to his tired brain and drag Ben from the depths of restless slumber. He woke from the uncomfortable seated position with a slight start, unhappy to see that nothing at all had changed in the few short minutes he'd been able to rest. Then he frowned, still painfully groggy, and wondered where the alarm that had woke him was coming from?

The curtain at the foot of his bed was quickly yanked open. His frown became one of mild confusion as a doctor and nurse quickly flew to his side, closely followed by a very concerned Ray Vecchio.

"What is it?" his friend demanded anxiously. "What's wrong?" Even as he spoke, the nurse reached up to one of the machines beside Ben and turned the alarm off.

"His Pulse Ox monitor," the doctor answered calmly. "It was set to sound an alarm if his oxygen saturation level fell off too much. Nothing to get too excited about," she assured the rather excited detective and set about correcting the situation. "What's his flow rate?"

"Three," the nurse answered.

"Set it to five," she ordered and pulled out her stethoscope to listen to Ben's chest. "Hi," she smiled into his confused blue eyes.

"You want to say that again in English, Doc?" Ray demanded, coming to stand at Benny's feet as the nurse and doctor worked on opposite sides of the bed.

A simple glance from brown eyes asked him to wait a moment as she continued moving her stethoscope about Ben's chest. She then had him lean forward and listened to his back.

"A Pulse Ox monitor is that thing you see clamped onto his finger," she answered as she moved her stethoscope about his back. She nodded at the device in question. "Its purpose is to monitor the amount of dissolved oxygen present within his subcutaneous tissues." She straightened, removing the stethoscope from her ears, and patted a small white box resting beside the idle EKG monitor. The readout consisted of a red light that flashed in time to his pulse and a LCD numeric display. It changed from 89 to 92 as Ray watched. "98 to 100 is normal. The alarm was set to go off at 85, but we don't start to get really worried until if falls into the 70's. I've increased your oxygen flow and your SAT level is coming back up nicely.

"However..." She added the word pointedly and moved off to the side, switching on the lights to an X-ray reading panel that just happened to be along the back wall. She deftly slid the X-rays she'd brought with her into place and frowned up at them. Ray got the impression she was seeing exactly what she expected to see. "Mr. Fraser, I'm afraid you are one very sick man..."

"But it's just the chicken pox!" Ray protested, arguing against fate and hoping that whatever the doctor was seeing it wasn't as serious as she was making it sound.

The doctor offered an unamused laugh and a shake of her head as she echoed him. "Just chicken pox." She sighed and came back to stand beside Ben. "I'm an Infectious Disease Specialist, which is why I was called in to consult on this case, and I can assure you, Mr. Vecchio, that there are people who die every year of 'just chicken pox.' You don't hear about them because in the grand scheme of things it's a relatively rare event, but it does happen. There's a lot of people who think the same way you do, including doctors. Not without reason, I'll admit. 99% of the time, chicken pox is a fairly benign if uncomfortable and unsightly childhood disease that runs its course without complication. Unfortunately, not all cases run so smoothly. Especially in adults."

She turned back to address her patient. "You have varicella pneumonia, Mr. Fraser. It's a fairly common complication of adult onset chicken pox occurring in approximately fifteen to twenty-five percent of all cases, depending on which study you want to believe. I've heard both higher and lower figures, but fifteen to twenty-five percent seems to be the general consensus right now. Varicella-zoster is the virus that causes the chicken pox. Unfortunately in your case, its set up shop in your lungs as well as your skin and the result is a rather nasty viral pneumonia. I need to go chase down your primary care physician and get you started on a regimen of anti-viral medication and corticosteroids. It's not the sort of treatment that can be done on an outpatient basis so I'm afraid you're going to have to be admitted. Mr. Vecchio, you're listed as his next of kin? Cousin or..?"

"He's from Canada and doesn't really have any family," Ray explained. "I'm as close as he's got down here."

"He hathz my pow-a off athornee," Ben offered with a tired nod.

"I'm sorry?" The doctor frowned, not understanding him.

"Power of attorney," Ray translated. "I have his power of attorney. Legally speaking, I can sign for him."

"Ah," she nodded. "Good. Then I'm going to need you to go back out front and fill out some paperwork at the admissions desk for him, all right? I'm also going to ask a nurse to stay with him so you don't have to worry while you're gone." Ray was surprised to find that she had subtly guided him to the point where they were both almost out of the 'room'. She paused as she spoke and cast the nurse with Benny a questioning glance. The other woman nodded in answer to the unspoken question and Ray knew she wouldn't be leaving Benny's side. That didn't reassured him, however. If anything, it alarmed him. Apparently, Benny was bad enough that the doctor didn't want him left alone. That couldn't be good. She reached out and took hold of the privacy curtain, drawing it closed again. "I'll make sure the front desk is expecting you," she offered lastly and then turned to hurry away.

"Wait!" Ray called out, finding that something about her manner was sending off alarm bells. He quickly stepped forward and stopped her, then continued in a more subdued voice that he hoped Benny wouldn't be able to hear over the other noises of the ER. "What-- I mean, how bad is he? Really? Is he going to be all right?"

"Viral pneumonia is nothing to play around with, Mr. Vecchio," she answered obliquely. "Please, just go fill out the paperwork. I, or Dr. Leonard, will be in to speak to him more in a few minutes." Once again she turned away and this time there was no denying the sense of urgency he'd thought he'd picked up from her inside the room. Ray didn't try to stop her. Fighting back a rising sense of fear, he turned in the other direction, hurrying toward the admissions desk to fill out the required paperwork so he could get back to Benny as quickly as possible.

"Knock, knock," Dr. Stewart's voice rang out even as she pushed the privacy curtain aside and re-entered Ben's section of the Emergency Room bay. "I'm back," she continued, moving toward Ben's side and waving Ray out of the way. A second nurse followed behind her and moved to hang another IV bag on the pole to Ben's right. "Dr. Leonard is still busy cleaning up a nasty gash a ten year old got in that MVA you keep hearing everyone talk about, so he agreed to let me take over here. Got all that paperwork filled out, Detective Vecchio?"

"Yeah," Ray agreed, watching the nurses as they worked beside Benny.

"Okay. Well, first we're going to get you started on some Acyclovir." She nodded at the IV that was being set up beside him. "That's the anti-viral I mentioned earlier. We're also going to give you some corticosteroids. Combined with the nebulizer treatments you've already received, it should help you breathe quite a bit easier." She frowned slightly at his pulse ox reading. "We'll also be giving you something for fever and that itch I know you must be starting to feel again. However, when all's said and done, we do have a bit of a problem here." She glanced behind her and grabbed up the stool Ray had been using, settling down to sit beside Ben. "We need to discuss it before it gets much worse."

"Worse?" Ray echoed in concern, taking the place of one of the nurses as she finished setting up the second IV. He watched as she moved aside, withdrawing a syringe from her pocket. Holding onto the first IV bag with one hand, she inserted the needle into an injection site on the bag itself and added whatever was in the syringe to the bag.

"Yes," the doctor answered, keeping her attention on Ben as she spoke. "I'm afraid your pneumonia is a bit more advanced than I'd like to see it at this point. You've got bilateral involvement with diffuse nodular infiltrations and some coalescent densites. What it all means is... you're drowning. Or to simplify matters further, we're in a race: a race between the virus that's attacking your system and the anti-viral medication we're giving you to attack it."

"Meaning the virus could win?" Ray interjected in mounting concern. If the virus won, then... How the hell could someone like Benny die of the chicken pox?! Ray simply couldn't believe this was happening!

The doctor only awarded him a glance. "Yes," she answered, addressing Ben rather than Ray. "Basically, we've got to try and keep you alive long enough to let the anti-viral medication do its job. If you have any moral or religious objections to the use of extraordinary measures to save your life, such as the use of respirators or cardiac resuscitation, now's the time to mention it."

Ray couldn't believe what he was hearing. Respirators? Cardiac resuscitation? All this because of the chicken pox?! Ben glanced at him, equally shaken and confused by this turn of events, though he hid it better than Ray.

Ben swallowed with difficulty and forced himself to answer the question. "Noth..." The blisters in his mouth made talking difficult, but he knew he had to make himself understood in this and worked to speak as clearly as possible. "Not... unless... there are... qualithy... off life... ith-use," he answered carefully.

The doctor nodded. "Quality of life issues: Severe brain damage due to lack of oxygen, possibly resulting in a persistent vegetative state, that sort of thing?"

Ben nodded.

"I understand that your friend has your power of attorney. Will you trust him to make these determinations in your stead if necessary, or would you like me to send someone in to help you with a Living Will?"

Again, the two men exchanged a look. Ray simply couldn't believe what he was hearing, let alone try to imagine... Yet, imagine he must. The eyes that met his were asking a question, judging his reaction and looking for an answer. That answer included a promise to pull the plug if things went terribly wrong. Could he do that? Could he...let Benny...

Wouldn't he want Fraser to do the same thing for him, if needed?

He swallowed around a throat that seemed to have suddenly discovered the entirety of the Sahara Desert within it and nodded, silently giving his friend the promise he needed. Ben nodded in turn and looked back to the doctor. "Him," he answered simply.

The doctor nodded as well and made a note in Ben's chart. "Okay," she sighed, and then looked back up. She regarded him for a long pensive moment before she spoke again. "Now... I'd like to talk about the possibility of getting you on a respirator right away, rather than waiting till there's no choice in the matter."

"Right away?" Ray asked in disbelief, echoing the surprise and fear he could see so easily mirrored in Benny's eyes. "Why? I thought that was only done as a last ditch resort type thing!"

"Usually," she agreed calmly. "Not always. If we have reason to believe intubation is inevitable, say in a case of bee sting with a known history of allergic reaction, it's often a good idea to go ahead and intubate the victim before they actually get into serious trouble. That's kind of what I'd like to do here. Given the present progression of your pneumonia, I give you only a few hours before we have to do it anyway. We go ahead and do it now, and things will be a lot better for everyone involved. Easier for the physician, less traumatic for you, plus we open up your lungs, maybe do a tracheal lavage and get some of that gunk out of them... You'll be able to breathe a whole lot easier. And, more importantly, it'll let you rest. You're expending a lot of energy just trying to breathe right now, Mr. Fraser, more than you realize. We go ahead and intubate you now, and that energy can be used to help fight the disease that's making you so sick. We wait, and you're going to be exhausted. The stronger you are, the better. Questions?"

"Yeah!" Ray exclaimed. "How 'bout a second opinion here! You're moving too damn fast!"

"That's generally the idea when you're in a race, Detective," she answered with a lifted brow and turned back to Ben. "I can get the pulmonologist in here again, if you'd like? This sort of thing is his specialty after all. In fact, he'd be the one doing the procedure. I can do it if I have too, but, frankly, he'd get it done and over with before I could even get decently started. Would you like to talk to him?"

Ben nodded, reaching up to adjust the nasal canula slightly. "Pleathe," he sighed and leaned his head back, wishing he could get comfortable on the hard examination table. A second opinion was always a good idea.

Ray glanced at the Pulse Ox readout again and frowned. No wonder Benny was looking a bit tired. It was dipping into the lower nineties again. "Can you turn up his oxygen again?" Ray asked before she could disappear.

She glanced over at the monitor. "His flow rate's already as high at it'll go, Detective," she answered sadly. "I'll be back in a minute."

The two men exchanged worried looks. Already as high as it would go? And he was still having problems?!

Ben sighed, then cleared his throat and consciously triggered a coughing fit, hoping to clear his lungs a little bit. It hurt like hell to do it, like someone was taking a knife to his insides as he gasped for a deeper breath, but he wanted to be able to think when the other doctor got in here. The pain doubled him over and his vision tunneled dangerously as he fought his way through the episode. He resisted instinct and closed his mouth as the coughing passed, breathing rapidly through his nose instead. The oxygen from the nasal canula helped fight off the near faint.

"Benny... Benny?" Ray called anxiously as he reached out to help steady his friend as he swayed.

Ben blinked his eyes open and focused on Ray. He hadn't meant to frighten him like that. Then again, he hadn't meant to nearly pass out either! Lord, but he was starting to feel like crap again, and he was developing a definite headache on top of everything else.

"Let's switch to a face mask," someone ordered. He glanced to the side only to recognize the tall black pulmonologist who'd given him his breathing treatments earlier. It looked like he was setting up another one. "You got any Lasix on board yet?" he added.

Had he passed out after all, he wondered, realizing he'd missed the doctors' return. Dr. Stewart answered but Ben lost whatever she said in the loud hissing of oxygen through tubes and mask and medicinal bubbler as the nasal canula was replaced by the oxygen face mask. Ben winced as the elastic band caught a couple of blisters on his face. The nurse, careful to hold the face mask in a straight vertical line so the bubbler would work properly, still managed to note his wince and quickly readjusted the elastic. "Better?" she asked kindly.

He nodded his thanks and turned his attention to trying to hear what the doctors were saying. Apparently, they were waiting on him as they regarded him pensively. "Back with us, Mr. Fraser?" Dr. Greyson, the pulmonologist asked, stepping forward.

Again he nodded, glancing to the end of the bed and feeling a stab of guilt as he met Ray's anxious gaze. Maybe he shouldn't have tried to clear his lungs like that after all... "Sthorry," he mumbled through the mask upon his face.

"I understand you wanted a second opinion about elective intubation," Dr. Greyson offered. He frowned at the bubbler attached to Ben's mask and reached out to flick a finger against the side of it, tapping it a few times to get the oxygen flowing through it a little smoother. "Frankly, after seeing your x-rays, I don't see how you're managing as well as you are. You must have excess lung capacity or something that didn't show up on the films. As for the second opinion, I agree with Dr. Stewart. We should go ahead and get it over with. Then you can get the rest you need and concentrate on getting well. When's the last time you ate?"

"About seven last night," Ray answered from the foot of his bed. Ben nodded to confirm it.

"Good," the doctor allowed. "It's always best to do it on an empty stomach. Any other questions?"

He acted like it was a foregone conclusion that Ben would agree... but Ben had to admit it didn't sound like he really had much of a choice. He shoved his mounting fear and confusion away, but found himself procrastinating by asking a question. "Will I be... conthethgs." He frowned, knowing the man couldn't have possibly understood his mangled pronunciation.

"That mouth is really bothering you, huh," the man frowned sympathetically. "You want to know if you'll be conscious?" he managed to translate despite Ben's slurred speech. "Yes," he answered. "We'll just give you a little sedation to make you more comfortable, but I prefer not to knock you out as general anesthesia also has the side effect of suppressing respiratory function, which is the last thing we want to do in your case. We'll also numb the back of your throat and teach you a few basic hand signals for communicating with us. We'll be telling you everything we're doing as we do it.

"There are dangers with intubation," he added. "Your throat or vocals cords could be damaged. The tube could wind up in the esophagus rather than the trachea. Or be miss positioned within the trachea: Too deep and it could damage the lungs or be partially blocked, too shallow and your body would be fighting to gag it up. Or it could trigger your gag reflex, causing you to aspirate your stomach contents. It also has to be connected up to the ventilator properly, which itself has to be properly calibrated, adjusted for pressure and rate of delivery, humidity, et cetera." He offered a shrug and cocked his head to the side. "For whatever it's worth, I've been doing this sort of thing for ten years and rarely had any glitches. It's not something I recommend lightly, Mr. Fraser; but, in your case, I do recommend it. The dangers exist but they're pretty minimal... and frankly we're going to have to do it sooner or later with you anyway. It's going to take a while for that anti-viral to kick in and you don't have the time to wait. I'd rather get it over with before it becomes an emergency procedure. What do you say?"

"Oh, god..." Ray sighed from the end of the bed, hanging his head and frowning at Benny's feet. He knew what Benny's answer would be. What it had to be... He glanced up and met blue eyes and all that was within them: ...confusion to find himself in such a position, fear about what might happen, and resolve to ignore the fear and do what had to be done... It was all there. Along with obvious regret that he was putting Ray and his family through all of this. Ray glanced back down again and shook his head. That was so like Benny, always thinking about others even when his own life was on the line.

Ben glanced back over to the doctor and nodded his answer. It was time to get this over with.

Frannie was frowning at the triage doorway when her brother suddenly reappeared. He frowned, glancing over the small sea of waiting patients as he tried to find her. She stood, the movement drawing his gaze to her, and then the two of them were moving quickly toward each other across the crowded area. He looked terrible, she thought as she joined him. Unshaven. Tired. Like he hadn't slept all night, which wasn't far from the truth. She probably didn't look so hot herself.

"Well?" she asked immediately. After dropping her off earlier and disappearing in back with Benton several hours ago, she'd only seen him once when he came out to fill out paperwork. He'd been in a bit of a hurry and unwilling to talk. About the only thing she'd managed to get out of him was that Benton had pneumonia, which came as no surprise. She'd been suspecting as much when she told Ray to call the ambulance. "Well?" she repeated when he failed to answer.

He bit his lip and glanced around them, then guided Frannie off to one side before he would answer. Frannie felt her heart in her throat as they moved. There was a haunted quality about his eyes... Something was wrong. Something was very wrong!

He glanced around again to make sure they weren't disturbing anyone and that those around them were respecting their obvious need for privacy. A silent glare at one overly curious man warned him off. He rose without a word to find another seat. Offering a weary sigh, Ray finally forced himself to again meet his sister's worried gaze. Damn, but he knew she was going to fall apart on him and he didn't have time or energy to deal with it right now! "They're... going to put him on a respirator," he finally told her without preamble.

Frannie paled and lifted a hand to her mouth as it dropped open in shock.

"It's just a precautionary measure at this point," he explained quickly, before she went and got too panicky and upset on him. "They're... they'd have to do it later anyway and want to do it now when it's easier and everything. It doesn't mean anything."

"But... a respirator, Ray?" A... respirator!" she hissed in disbelief.

"I know," he agreed quietly, glancing around them again and praying his sister wasn't about to come totally unglued on him. She had a crush the size of Illinois on the guy, painfully obvious to everyone except Benny, apparently; and, while Benny was like family, he wasn't her husband as much as she might fantasize otherwise. She was sure to over-react. "This is Benny we're talking about," he reassured her. "He's been through a hell of a lot worse than the chicken pox. Don't go freaking out on me, Frannie. I'm too tired to handle it right now!"

Frannie awarded him a hurt glare that said exactly what she thought of his words.

He raked a hand back over his shorn pate, ignoring the look. "I gotta go call Ma and Thatcher. You going to be okay while I do that?"

"I'm fine, Ray," she answered curtly.

Ray didn't believe her for a moment but knew there was nothing he could do to help her either. That was what was wrong with people who dared to dream, he thought, remembering a rather heated discussion they'd had about her infatuation with the Mountie last year: those dreams tangled up your heart and could hurt you, no matter how unreal or out of reach those dreams might be.

He shook his head and turned away, heading outside where he could use his cell phone.

"--both hands, fingers tapping your chest, means a sense of pressure and that you don't seem to be getting enough air," the nurse explained, demonstrating as she spoke.

Dr. Greyson stepped forward as she finished the quick lesson. "You still with us, Ben?" he asked as he slid his germ mask into place. "You understand what Tina here was telling you?"

Ben nodded lethargically and added a thumbs up to prove that he'd managed to follow the short discourse, despite the sedative which was most definitely doing its job. The back of his throat had also gone quite numb from the lidocaine swabbing he'd been given during her lesson.

"Okay then," the doctor nodded and moved around behind Ben where he couldn't see him. A surgical tray was pushed into place and its drape removed by one of the nurses as the man continued speaking. "We're going to be moving very fast. I want you to concentrate on staying relaxed and not panicking on me. It's a very uncomfortable and frightening procedure but we'll get it over with as quickly as possible. Here we go."

Ben suddenly found himself being lowered to a reclining position and immediately felt a sense of panic as he found himself having to fight to breathe. And then the oxygen mask was stripped away as well...


He heard, more than saw, the large L shaped instrument being slapped into the physician's gloved hand as his jaw was firmly grasped and his head repositioned. He was a bit surprised and confused to realize he wasn't lying flat but had something under his head. Panic wasn't far away as the cold hard metal slipped between his teeth; but he did as asked, fighting to separate himself from what was happening even as he felt himself beginning to choke.

"Let's go with a seven point five. ...Relax, relax..."

It was very hard to relax. He couldn't breathe! Ben closed his eyes and consciously opened his frightened fists, but was unable to keep his hands from trembling. An unseen nurse took one of his hands in her own and squeezed it reassuringly.

Then Ben was suddenly gagging, uncontrollably, as the doctor took the ET tube and started shoving it down his throat, or so it seemed, working quickly and carefully to properly position the apparatus. "Relax..."

"Detective Vecchio?"

Ray glanced up from where he sat beside Frannie and immediately recognized Dr. Stewart. She smiled reassuringly and cocked her head to the side, silently asking him to join her. He glanced at Frannie but knew without asking that there was no way she was going to simply wait here. Ma and the others hadn't arrived yet, and Thatcher would be showing up soon too, but he knew better than to even attempt to ask her to wait for them. If Ma and the others arrived while they were gone, they'd know the two of them were with Benny's doctor. Their family had been through the hospital routine too many times before. If Thatcher arrived before they did... Well, she'd figure it out, eventually. Together, brother and sister rose and silently followed the doctor from the waiting area. She lead them across the hall to a somewhat more private consultation room and waved them to be seated.

"I'm Dr. Stewart," she introduced herself to Frannie offering her hand before taking a seat herself.

Frannie took the hand with a tight smile but glanced at Ray uncomfortably, unable to find her voice. "My sister, Frannie Vecchio," he supplied. "How's Benny?" He wasn't interested in any chit-chat.

The doctor nodded reassuringly to the obviously distressed young woman. "Benny's doing fine," she assured them both, choosing to adopt the first name approach that Mr. Vecchio had offered so as to help put them more at ease. "The procedure went quite smoothly and X-rays have confirmed proper placement of the tube. We've also done a tracheal lavage, that is suctioning of his lungs, and I'm happy to report that he is breathing much easier at the moment."

Ray sighed and looked relieved. His sister, however, was not as easily reassured. "At the moment?" she echoed in continued concern.

The doctor answered with an unhappy nod. "He's... not out of the woods yet. I'm afraid your friend is a very sick man."

"He could still die," Ray interpreted her words bluntly, not making it a question.

He was a hard one, this Chicago Police Detective. She glanced at his sister, wishing he would take a softer approach for her sake. "That's always a possibility in cases like this, yes," she answered just as bluntly, unwilling to offer false hope, yet hoping that a calm delivery would help the other woman remain calm as well. She looked rather pale and stressed, but was fighting her fear valiantly.

"What are his chances?" her brother asked bluntly.

Dr. Stewart shook her head. "I don't like to talk in terms of percentages," she answered, or more accurately refused to answer.

"Bull shit," the detective snapped quietly. "He's a cop. I'm a cop. Give it to me straight, Doc. I've been here too many times not to know how this works."

Dr. Stewart was surprised to learn that her patient was a police officer. She could have sworn she'd read that he was Canadian... but then she'd reviewed his history rather quickly, taking careful note of the fact that he'd been shot last year. X-rays had confirmed he still had a bullet in the middle of his back. She'd noted that he seemed to be very lucky at the same time she and Dr. Greyson reviewed the position of the endotracheal tube. How the bullet got there was something doctors tended to purposely ignore as unimportant and potential prejudicial to the performance of their job. The information was noted somewhere in his record, she was sure, she'd just missed it. That he was a cop, however, did help explain Det. Vecchio's obvious concern. They must be partners. She frowned at the rock hard facade the man tried to throw up to hide how worried he really was. She was better at reading people than that. This was a question she really wanted to avoid.

"As a cop, I'd think you'd know better than the average person exactly how empty percentages can be," she answered in terms she hoped he'd understand. "Each investigation is different, isn't it; and has to be approached on an individual basis? You go into something with preconceived notions, and you're going to miss something. It's no different in medicine."

"If only ten percent of the witness's to a crime say the gun man was blonde, I tend to worry more about the other ninety percent that say he had dark hair," he rejoined sarcastically.

The doctor shrugged. "Maybe the blonde witness's saw him before he put on his wig?"

"Point taken," he admitted but refused to back down. "Odds, Doctor," he demanded. "How worried do we need to be here?"

"Worrying isn't going to help your friend." She shook her head and sighed, knowing from the hard look on his face that he wasn't going to drop it. And frankly, she didn't have all day to argue with him. "Fifty-fifty," she admitted reluctantly. "Mr. Fraser has many things going in his favor," she added and glanced toward the man's sister to include her. He had enough empathy to at least slip an arm about her shoulders. "He's a previously healthy adult male in excellent physical condition for his age and has none of the normal risk markers such as smoking, drug use or HIV which would be sending up red flags for me."

"But?" Ray insisted curtly.

"But..." she sighed unhappily, "...that may not be enough. For some reason, the pneumonia attacking his system is being particularly aggressive. My analogy of being in a race is very apt. The next twenty-four hours are going to be critical."

Frannie bowed her head, and turned into Ray's hold as the frightened tears she'd been holding at bay suddenly escaped her control. She sent up a frantic prayer to heaven, regretting even as she did the need to do so yet again. God, hadn't the man been through enough? It was less than a year ago that Ray had shot him and he nearly died. There'd been a big chance in the beginning that he'd be paralyzed. He'd fought back from that, recovered fully both physically and mentally from what that ... that witch ... had done to him. Now, something as mundane and innocuous as the chicken pox might kill him! It all seemed so unreal!

"When can we see him?" Ray asked.

"At the moment, they're letting him get adjusted to the ventilator. Next, we'll be inserting a naso-gastric tube and urinary catheter. Once we have him set up down here, we'll be sending him upstairs to ICU. They'll be putting him into isolation but don't let that worry you. It's standard procedure for infectious diseases, and more for the staff and other patients' protection than for his."

Frannie was starting to get control again and sat up to wipe at her face as she listened to the doctor's calm and matter of fact voice. The doctor silently reached over to the end table beside her and handed Frannie the Kleenex box even as she continued speaking.

"ICU is up on the third floor. I'd say give us about an hour before you head up. With his being sedated and the stress of everything, he'll likely be asleep. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that if he is asleep, you need to let him sleep." But she said it anyway and made sure she got nods from both of them. "Being in isolation means that there are a number of rules and procedures you'll have to go through before you can visit him. The nurses on three will explain it all to you. You must check in with them every time you go up to see him, and check with them again before you leave. His wrists will have clothe restraints attached to them. They're there for his own safety and must be secured to the safety rails anytime he's going to be left alone. When you're with him, and he's awake, you can release the restraints. He can't talk, naturally, but there is a special pressure sensitive pad and stylus next to his bed for communicating. Even when he is awake, he's probably not going to be fully cognizant and it's very important you keep an eye on him if you do release the restraints. He's sedated and uncomfortable, and could very well try to dislodge his endotracheal tube when no one's looking. It's important everyone who visits him, knows that. The number of visitors may also be limited. The nurses have absolute control up there. Don't argue with them. Questions?"

The Vecchio siblings exchanged concerned looks that spoke volumes about the helplessness of the situation they found themselves in. There was nothing they could really do for their friend now, except wait and pray. "We've been through the hospital routine before, Doc," Ray offered sadly.

"Okay," the doctor sighed and stood, bringing the consultation to a close. "I'll be checking on him throughout the day so I'm sure I'll be seeing you again. Don't let yourselves worry too much. The best thing you can do for your friend is take care of yourselves. After you have a chance to see him, I want you to think about heading home and getting some sleep yourselves. And remember that you have to drive to do that. Don't push yourselves too hard. I don't think he'd appreciate it if either of you wound up in the hospital with him." She offered her hand in parting.

"Thank you, Doctor," Vecchio offered, standing as well and shaking her hand. She nodded, shook Frannie's hand as well, and then was gone. Together, brother and sister moved to go back to the waiting area and see if any of the family or Thatcher had arrived yet, dreading trying to explain everything to them. Ray guided Frannie with a silent arm about her shoulders. Neither of them spoke because there was nothing to say. Instead, they each sent up silent prayers, asking for Benny's life.

Sleep was a precious and elusive commodity; a longed for escape; a thick, warm blanket to be drawn upward to block out reality... Ben had long ago trained himself to be able to fall asleep whenever he wanted. It was a necessary skill in the far north when tracking a criminal across the trackless wilderness, and one that had often given him a decided advantage when confronting a desperate fugitive. It was a talent he'd carefully cultivated and mastered over time, but which was seemingly beyond his ability at the moment. His thoughts kept wondering in a disjointed fog, refusing to answer to hard won discipline.

It would be much easier, he thought, if he weren't sedated.

He remembered the last time he'd been sick. Pink eye. ;pBoth eyes. He was ten. He remembered his grandmother consulting an Inuit angatkuq, or shaman, and preparing a poultice to put on his eyes. It had smelled terrible, but the warmth had felt wonderful, soothing the overwhelming itch...

...Which made him remember the itch of his chicken pox and Francesca smearing cool calamine lotion over his fever-heated flesh. The memory caused a blush to heat his cheeks and he quickly banished the notion that he'd enjoyed it a bit more than he should have. Her touch as she'd bathed him for fever and applied the lotion was always carefully correct. Well, almost always. Those moments when it wasn't never lasted long enough for him to be certain of anything. He'd simply felt too sick to even contemplate such slips on her part, or what response he might wish to give...

Response? She was Ray's sister, he reminded himself firmly! He knew perfectly well what Ray thought of a liaison between them, not that he really thought she his type. If he even had a type. He'd thought at one time he had... But Victoria had proven just how disastrous his judgment was where women were concerned.

Tarnation! He didn't want to think about Victoria! He'd done too much thinking about her the last time he was in hospital. Thank God, Ray had shot him. Madness. Deadly madness... Like a fever in his blood. How could he possibly compare Francesca with Victoria? Okay, so they both had dark hair but...

(((shhhhhhwpt!))) He suddenly found himself being forced to breathe. It was an incredibly disconcerting feeling which sent a shock of momentary fear through his system and shattered all his attempts to find sleep. He knew what it was: an Intermittent Mandatory Breath. The doctor had explained it all to him when he was first getting used to the ventilator and they were adjusting it. It still came as an unpleasant shock.

He had to consciously choose not to fight it. If he did, the pressure limit could be exceeded and an alarm would sound. It was set so that his lungs were under constant positive pressure, something called PEEP, and it was quite uncomfortable. The doctor had explained that this helped keep his alveoli open when he was exhaling. It also somehow helped reduce the actual amount of oxygen they had to give him. The man had gone on to talk about oxygen toxicity, lung compliancy, vital capacity, arterial blood gas tension and other things that Ben had been completely unable to follow.

The machine finished delivering the mandatory breath and Ben tried to relax again, breathing normally, or as normally as the machine would allow him too. Generally, his own autonomic needs initiated each breath, then the machine took over and delivered a set volume of air. Also quite disconcerting. It had taken him several minutes to get use to it. It 'assisted' his breathing, so long as he breathed a requisite number of times per minute. If he didn't, the machine automatically initiated a mandatory breath. His breathing must have fallen below the preset requirement. The presence of the endotracheal tube and having the machine control each inhalation was bad enough, having the machine take over complete control, even for just one breath, was definitely worse.

He resisted the urge to sigh, knowing the machine would simply initiate another breath, thus negating any value a sigh might hold. He was so tired... but was now afraid of dreaming about Victoria which was the last thing he wanted to do, so instead he opened his eyes and glanced around, hoping to distract himself.

His father stood frowning at him. The head of the bed was lifted to about a sixty degree angle and the bed itself was elevated as well so the two of them were basically on the same eye level.

"Chicken pox..." Bob Fraser shook his head in simple disbelief. "Who'd have thought a simple childhood disease could land you in the hospital hooked up to one of these here... breathing contraptions. Ventilator is it? Or respirator? I think I've heard both. I wonder what the difference is..."

Ben closed his eyes and wished the man away. This was not the kind of distraction he'd been hoping for!

"So you're going to be choosy, are you?" Bob answered the unspoken sentiment. "That's rather ungrateful I'd say. And selfish. Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't be worried about you, you know. The doctors keep saying you're very sick, that you might even die. They've been careful not to say it around you, of course, but... talk about disconcerting! I'd hate for you to be alone if that were to happen. Oh, and don't ask me if you're going to live or not: 'they' don't tell us these sorts of things." He glanced upward to indicate which 'they' he meant. "I just thought, as your father and everything you know, that it was my duty so to speak, to... keep an eye on you. But, if you don't want me hanging around..."

Ben rolled his eyes. His father was laying the guilt-trip routine on rather heavily; but, despite the blatant nature of his manipulations, they were also effective.

"W'up!" Bob suddenly glanced toward the door. "Someone else arriving to distract you, I see. Try not to be too happy, Son. It's rather insulting, you know."

Ben turned his eyes toward the door, careful not to move his head any farther than necessary. The tube was well secured but, despite the sedation and other medications he'd been given, he felt every tug and shift as if it had been glued into his throat. Each inhalation caused the ribbed plastic to expand and contract. He was learning to ignore that... He frowned slightly as he watched a nurse and... someone else beyond the large glass windows that made up the wall of his isolation room opposite the nurse's station. They were both in surgical scrubs. His attending nurse had glanced up as well and was watching them. It wasn't until the one moved to open the door that he recognized Inspector Thatcher.

"Oh, its that Inspector woman of yours," Bob recognized her a moment after Ben did. "And you in no shape to give her a leg over at the moment. Pity. You really should have taken her on after your encounter atop that train, Son. And don't go telling me nothing happened like when I asked you about your hat. I can read you like a book. You wanted her. Admit it!"

Whether he had or not, was none of his father's business. She was his superior officer. His father should know better than to suggest... Were grandchildren the only thing the man could think about?

"Well, it's not like you ever worry about them!" Bob rejoined peevishly.

"Ben?" Meg's soft voice, daring to address him by his given name, jerked his attention from his father. He blinked heavy-lidded eyes and glanced to his left to see her offering a gentle, if somewhat worried, smile as she reached down to squeeze his hand, her eyes noting and then ignoring the wrist restraints. They weren't particularly tight. He had about a foot of movement in each arm. They were designed more as tethers to keep him from being able to reach up to pull the ET tube out, than as true restraints. He still hated them. "Hi," she added.

Unable to speak, he answered the gentle squeeze with one of his own.

"Ray said to say 'hi', too. Unfortunately, Lt. Welsh couldn't afford to give him anymore time off without taking flak from his own superiors so... he had to go to work."

Ben nodded slightly. Ray had taken a lot of time off because of him during this last year. Too much...

"You're actually looking better than the last time I saw you at the Vecchios' house," she offered. "I see they're using something besides calamine lotion for your rash. Pink just isn't your color," she joked quietly.

"That's just because you've never seen him holding a baby girl in his arms," Bob told her.

Ben glanced his way, silently ordering him to, 'stop it!'

"She can't hear me!" Bob protested, not about to curtail his comments.

"I won't ask how you're feeling," Meg continued, her words overlapping his father's, "but I do hope you're doing better than when they brought you in here. You've got a number of people worried about you, Constable."

He really hated upsetting everyone... He released her hand and made a gesture as if he were writing, then glanced to the lap table where a stylus and pressure pad rested.

She followed his gaze and shook her head. "No, unless it's important? I don't want to tax your strength or anything..."

"Relax, Son, and enjoy it. Having a pretty woman worry about you is one of the more pleasant things in life!"

Ben glared at his father.

"I really should go and just let you sleep, but..." Ben's attention was jerked back to Meg. He didn't want her to go. "...well, I wanted to check on you myself. You are my Deputy Liaison Officer, after all, and... and a valuable member of my staff." Her eyes noted the nurse doing paperwork like a silent shadow in the background of the room. She cleared her throat, reverting to a more professional facade, but it didn't quite want to fit anymore. "Turnbull is handling things adequately in your absence, but, well, 'adequately' is about all I can say for it. The entire staff will be much happier once you've recovered and are back to your normal overly-polite, interfering self again."

He would have smiled at that were he capable of doing so.

"She still wants you, Son," Bob decided with a nod, and then had to suddenly step aside as the nurse attempted to walk through him, reaching up to one of Ben's monitors to check something with a slight frown. "Oh heavens, but it feels odd when someone does that!" he exclaimed. Then, as quickly as he'd come, he was gone again.

"Something wrong?" Meg asked, noting the woman's slight frown.

"No," the nurse answered simply and moved away to note something in Ben's chart.

Ben didn't hear the soft exchange. His mind was starting to wonder again as sleep beckoned more strongly. Instead, he was struck by the soft sweep of Meg's hair and the way it curved to gently accentuate her jaw line... He remembered the last time he'd really looked at her hair, remembered the feel of her in his arms as they were handcuffed together aboard a train speeding toward nuclear catastrophe, remembered the unique scent that was hers alone and tried to sniff, knowing he should be able to sense it... But of course he couldn't. He merely triggered the ventilator. He winced slightly as pain flared along his right side.

Meg watched the nurse for a long moment and then shook herself, glancing around again at the many machines that surrounded Ben. "They certainly have you hooked up, don't they?" she commented. "At least it's quieter than they portray on television." She offered another smile, this one a bit more genuine than the previous one. "Why don't you close your eyes, Ben, and try to get some rest?" she suggested. "I'm well aware you're going to be just fine, but do you mind if I sit with you a little bit? Frankly, I'm running out of things to say but don't feel like returning to the Consulate to face Turnbull quite yet."

Ben answered with a slight nod and closed his eyes, ignoring another minor stab of discomfort in his side as the machine delivered another breath. He suspected there was more behind her need to sit with him than she was comfortable admitting. Just as her presence at his bedside was more comforting than he could ever tell her.

Frannie caught herself biting her lower lip nervously and ordered herself to stop. Her lipstick wouldn't appreciate it, and neither would her teeth. Unobtrusively, or as unobtrusively as possible, she ran her tongue over her teeth to hopefully remove any tell-tale signs of red. Not that there was anyone to see it, except the nurse who was in the process of explaining the visiting rules. Frannie looked through the window into Ben's isolation room to confirm that he was still asleep.

Thatcher had spent about an hour with him before she felt compelled to return to her duties at the Consulate. Some big wig was coming into town and she had to be there to greet him. That hour had both dragged and raced by for Frannie. She'd been torn between being jealous, which really didn't make a lot of sense given the situation Ben was in, and being happy that she didn't have to go first. She'd been relieved when Thatcher had said he was sleeping. It had taken her another hour to get up the nerve to go see him herself.

He looked so alone and helpless in there, dwarfed by the equipment surrounding him... She'd been surprised to think that he might be awake at all while on a ventilator. Didn't they normally knock people out for stuff like that? But then, she was no doctor. Obviously.

Oh god... Her throat suddenly tightened up and tears once more threatened as she watched him through the glass, only half-listening to what the nurse opposite her was saying. He could die! That's all she knew or needed to know. And if he did, it would be all her fault! If only she'd realized how sick he was... If only they'd gotten him to the hospital sooner... Just the chicken pox: She should have known better! Especially with the way he'd been coughing and how hard it was to control his fever.

She closed her eyes and prayed yet again that God would let him live. She'd never be able to forgive herself if he were to die!

"--Vecchio... Ms. Vecchio?" The nurse opposite her was demanding her attention.

Frannie forced the tears back, forced her eyes open, forced her attention back to the woman. "I'm sorry?" she apologized for her inattention.

"Are you all right?" the older woman asked with a concerned frown.

"Fine!" Frannie forced a smile as well. "I'm fine," she repeated, knowing her voice had come out too high and tight. She swallowed to clear her throat. "You were saying..?

"...That when you leave the room you need to immediately remove your gown and place it here in this bag." She indicated one of three large, canvas type laundry bags stretched on a wire frame next to the isolation suites. "Then go over there..." She pointed to a large double sink beside the nurse's station, "...and wash your hands. Don't go walking around or touching anything until after you do. It's very important for the sake of all the other patients that you follow these rules. Any questions?"

Frannie shook her head and the nurse nodded.

"You can go on in then," she allowed. "Mr. Fraser is sleeping--"

"--Constable," Frannie automatically corrected her.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Constable Fraser. He's..." Frannie stopped to listen to herself and realized how very unimportant his rank was. 'Mister' had simply struck her as odd. She dismissed it with another shake of her head. "...Never mind. What were you saying?"

"Okay, um, he's sleeping," she repeated, forcing her own mind back on task, "but a little restless, so we'd ask that you be quiet while you're with him and don't release the wrist restraints."

Frannie nodded solemnly and then suddenly frowned as movement in Ben's room caught her eye. An alarm of some sort suddenly broke the relative quiet of the ward, coming from the Nurses' Station and-- "Oh, my God..!" Frannie gasped and felt her heart leap into her throat. He was convulsing!

"Stay here!" the nurse ordered sharply even as she turned to the door and moved to help assist the attending nurse who was already at Ben's side.

Frannie couldn't move if she wanted too. She was frozen in shock and terror. Other's answered the call as well, grabbing up gowns and donning them even as they rushed into the room. The alarm was turned off as Ben was almost instantly surrounded by nurses and the on-call doctor.

And then Frannie's view was blocked as one of the nurses, spotting her pale face, grabbed the privacy curtain and drew it shut across the window.

A sudden wave of dizziness encompassed him, jerking him from... Hadn't he been asleep? But now he was standing... He blinked his eyes open, startled, and put out a hand to steady himself. His hand met a red serge clad chest. Frowning, he blinked again and glanced up to meet his father's solemn gaze.

He glanced back down at his hand, realizing belatedly that he was touching his father, something he'd never been able to do before. He pulled his hand away and closed it, feeling rather strange and... He felt the beginnings of fear and glanced up again, only to quickly follow his father's grim gaze across the room...

Ben saw himself still lying on the ICU bed, now lowered flat, surrounded by nurses and...


He watched as his body jumped and realized the doctor had used a defibrillator to deliver a cardiac countershock. Somehow, he knew it wasn't the first. He'd been disconnected from the respirator and a nurse quickly stepped forward to begin bagging him as the others turned to look at the cardiac readout: Flat line.

"360!" the doctor ordered curtly without moving the paddles. The electrical pre-charge was adjusted and, a moment later, his body jumped again. The monitor continued to present a flat line. The doctor shook her head and immediately started cardiac compressions even as she ordered, "Epinephrine, 1 milligram, and start a lidocaine drip."

He glanced again to his father, but the other man had nothing to offer except a slight shrug and sympathetic frown. Ben turned back to the tableau before him. "Oh, dear..." he offered quietly.

"It's my fault," Frannie whispered, repeating her self-accusation forlornly as she sat with her mother and Maria in the small ICU waiting room and dabbed in vain at red rimmed eyes. She was trying hard not to fall apart and was failing miserably. If only she'd realized how sick he was... If only they'd gotten him to the hospital sooner... She should have known, should have realized, the cough, the hard to control fever, sleeping all the time... The kids had never done that. The sniffles and scratching, that was all they'd had to worry about with them. Yeah, she knew it was supposed to be harder on adults but... My God! Why hadn't she seen it? Had her dreams blinded her so much that... If he died, it would be her fault! It would be all her fault!

Her mother's gentle murmur and the hand rubbing comforting circles between her shoulder blades suddenly stopped and Frannie glanced up with everyone else then, to see Dr. Stewart standing before them.

"Frannie?" the doctor asked in gentle concern, dredging the name from memory with difficulty as she frowned and knelt before the younger woman. Fortunately, they were the only ones in the small waiting room at present. "Hey, it's a little early for the waterworks don't you think? Benny's still hanging in there."

Frannie swallowed convulsively and fought to find her voice again. "He's going to be all right?"

The doctor glanced down and away for a moment, unwilling to go that far, then back up. "He's alive," she answered, stressing the positive.

Frannie couldn't hear it. Her face crumpled again and she bowed her head as new tears threatened.

"Is your brother around?" Dr. Stewart asked gently, glancing at the other two women for a possible answer.

Frannie's head jerked up again with a look of horror. "You're not... I mean, you're not thinking... about..."

The doctor easily read her fear and understood what she couldn't bring herself to say. "No," she answered, and reached out to take the other woman's hands in her own, hoping to instill some strength and calm. They were like ice. "No," she repeated, glancing at the other two to include them. "We're not thinking about letting him go. Not yet, anyway."

"Then why..." Frannie had to fight to calm her racing heart so she could speak again. The last part of what the doctor said penetrated slowly. "Not yet..!" she echoed fearfully.

The doctor did not look happy and glanced to the other two women. "Mr. Vecchio really should be here for this," she told them softly, side-stepping his sister's question even as she lightly chafed the cold hands between her own.

"He is a police officer and had to go to work," the older woman to Frannie's left, whom Dr. Stewart dared assume was her mother, answered. "We are to call him with any change. And he promised to come if there is an emergency..?"

Dr. Stewart pursed her lips for a second and considered that. As Mr. Fraser's next of kin, he needed to be informed of the change in his friend's condition. She also felt he needed to be here to help hold his sister together. However, she knew well that the living had to make a living. She could only assume that his being here would mean risking his job. If that were the case, then, "No," she shook her head. The situation was not yet critical.

"But you're worried." It was Frannie who forced herself to say this, anxiously studying the doctor who knelt before them. Dr. Stewart studied her in turn, noting she hadn't made it a question. The younger woman had managed to shore up her emotional dam, at least for the moment, and was waiting expectantly.

"I won't lie to you, Ms. Vecchio," she offered solemnly, glancing at the others to include them as well. "Your friend gave us a definite scare back there. He suffered a seizure and cardiac arrest. It took us a few minutes to get him back. Had it continued much longer, I would have called it and let him go as per his instructions concerning resusitation. He made himself rather clear on when we were, and were not, to attempt to revive him before he was intubated," she explained, hoping to prepare them if it happened again. Giving 'the family' the facts, no matter how painful, was often the best way to help them deal with a situation. She was afraid that Mr. Fraser's chances of surviving the next twelve hours had deteriorated rather significantly, but she wasn't willing to be that blunt with them.

"Once we had him back, we discovered a couple of other complications which, I suspect, aggravated his condition and caused the seizure and congestive heart failure. The first was some pleural effusion which didn't show up very clearly on his last x-rays, meaning that fluids from the lungs have leaked into the space surrounding them, the pleural cavity. It's not at all uncommon in patients with pneumonia. You can think of the pleural cavity as a sealed vacuum chamber. When you breathe, the diaphragm (she put her hand at the base of her chest, palm down) expands this chamber, causing a vacuum and forcing the lungs to expand and draw in air. (She demonstrated by pushing her hand down and expanding her chest. Then relaxed again.) You get fluids leaking in there and suddenly, it's taking up room and the lungs can't expand as much."

The elder Vecchio woman crossed herself, drawing out a rosary and glancing toward the ceiling as she offered a quick and silent prayer.

"Treatment is fairly simple and straight forward," Dr. Stewart continued in a calm and dispassionate voice, wanting to make sure they understood what Mr. Fraser's exact condition was. "We've removed the fluid and inserted a chest tube. It should not become a problem again. However, it did cause us a few other problems along the way; or, more accurately, exacerbated problems we already knew about.

"You see, one aspect of the ventilator setup we're using with him includes something called PEEP, or positive end-expiratory pressure. This helps keep his lungs... open, especially the smaller air sacs or alveoli. Well, the heart has to share the same space in his chest as the lungs do and so PEEP winds up causing the lungs to press up against the heart. Add the pleural effusion and you suddenly have even more pressure on the heart. This pressure can interfere with its rhythm and impair venous return which means that even though we're getting the oxygen into his bloodstream, the heart may not be able to move it around the way it needs to. The body starts producing ADH which causes edema, meaning he starts to retain water because the body thinks blood volume is low when it isn't and his tissues have to fight to handle it. The pericardium, or the sac around the heart, which is already fighting a fluid imbalance because of the virus just as the lungs are, swells as well, which puts even more pressure on the heart, impairing its function even further. This in turn affects the rest of the body; the liver, the kidneys and even the brain. If the brain isn't getting enough oxygen this causes vasodilation which can cause it to swell and..." She sighed, realizing belatedly that she was giving them far too much information to absorb. "It's a kind of chain reaction," she summarized. "The end result, or one of them, is congestive heart failure. And brain swelling which... Well, the seizure could have been caused by any number of things." She shook her head. Damn. She really should have thought this through better before she tried to explain it...

"It's a balancing act," she tried again, forcing herself to keep it simple. K.I.S.S, she told herself: Keep It Simple Stupid. She sighed again. "We're readjusting the ventilator even now. We've lowered the PEEP which takes pressure off the heart, and increased his FiO2, or the actual percentage of oxygen he's getting. In point of fact, we're purposely hyperventilating him at the moment which should help reduce the brain swelling and..."

She was still getting too technical. It had just been too long since she'd actually had to deal one on one with a patient and his family in a critical care situation. Her practice was almost exclusively made up of consult jobs!

"Good news," she offered, forcing herself to break it down into black and white for the family. "We caught everything in time and I don't think there was any permanent damage done. We won't know for sure for a couple of days, but he's responding well to the new therapies. We've just about got him stabilized again. If we can keep him there another twelve hours or so, we should start to see the anti-viral kick in, at which point he should improve quite rapidly.

"Bad news..." She paused to blow out an unhappy breath and give them a second to brace themselves, then forced herself to meet their worried gazes again. "He's gone into a coma. Now..." she went on quickly before they could get too upset, "it may not be all that serious, just his brain shutting down for a little bit to recover from the abuse of everything that's going on. I wouldn't be surprised at all if I went in there right now and he was trying to wake up." She sighed. "But comas are strange things," she admitted. "I've ordered a number of tests to rule out more serious complications and possible causes; and if I find anything, or if he doesn't come around within the next day or so, I'll be calling for a neurological consult. So..."

She sighed again, letting her gaze sweep the three woman to judge their reactions. The other two seemed to be handling it about as she'd expected, but 'Frannie' had her worried. She frowned in concern as the younger woman continued to sit with her head down, tissue to her face, sobbing silently. The doctor cocked a questioning eyebrow at her mother.

"She is blaming herself for not calling the ambulance sooner," Ma offered quietly, shaking her head in concern of her own as she put her arm about her youngest daughter's quaking form again.

Dr. Stewart nodded pensively. "It's natural to want to blame someone or something when these sort of things happen, even ourselves; but we're often wrong to do so. Was it your idea to call the ambulance, or his?"

"I -- I should have -- I --" She could barely breathe around her tears, let alone talk.

"Ms. Vecchio," the doctor addressed her quite seriously and squeezed the hands she still held in an effort to help her focus. "Just answer the question. Was it your idea to call the ambulance, or his?"

Frannie glanced up in confusion and pain. "But -- but if I'd gotten him here sooner..."

"--If you'd gotten him here sooner," the doctor picked up her words and continued, "the doctors in the emergency room would have likely given him a breathing treatment and sent him home with a bottle of caladryl. The pneumonia might not have even shown up yesterday, if they bothered to order x-rays at all." She paused a long moment as the young woman opposite her blinked, fighting to absorb what she was saying. "Adult onset chicken pox is very rare, Frannie," she continued quietly, "and varicella pneumonia is even more rare. Doctors can go through their entire careers and never see a case. Most deaths occur because the patient doesn't bother to seek medical help until it's too late. And I suspect that would have been the case here if you hadn't picked up the phone, wouldn't it? It wasn't his idea, was it?"

Ma had to lean forward to see her daughter's face. "Answer her, mi cara," she insisted.

Frannie closed her eyes and shook her head, but it wasn't that easy for her to forgive herself. "If it had been caught sooner--"

"--If it were caught sooner... If the doctors had recognized the danger signs... If they hadn't dismissed it as 'just chicken pox'... If they'd started him on anti-viral medications immediately..." The doctor sighed. "Those are a lot of 'ifs', Frannie, and frankly rather unlikely. And even if all of that had happened, there'd still be no guarantees. He might very well be in the exact same condition as he is now; and it wouldn't be because of anything you, or anyone else, did or didn't do. The fact that you did call the ambulance, probably before he wanted you too, is one of the few reasons he's alive now. You need to stop beating yourself up over this. Really."

Frannie glanced up again, her eyes searching the doctor's face as if she were afraid to believe what she was hearing.

"You see, Francesca?" Ma added her voice to that of the doctor and shook her head. "We tried to tell her. She would not listen."

The doctor nodded, knowing that the other woman was still probably trying to blame herself, but she couldn't afford to devote any more time to it at the moment. She felt it was important to treat the whole family in times of medical crisis. They were the patient's support group. It was important that they understand what was going on and have the support they needed so they could best help their loved one and the doctors caring for them. But she had to get back to Mr. Fraser.

"Would you like me to see if I can find a counselor or the Chaplain?" she offered. It would be a simple matter to have a nurse track someone down who did have the time to help them and who was properly trained to do so. She was out of her league here.

Frannie shook her head, wiping her nose and bowing her face again. "I'll be okay," she answered quietly.

The two women with her watched her in guarded concern. Dr. Stewart looked to her mother for direction, but the older woman shook her head. "We will call Father Behan if we need him, thank you."

"Okay..." she nodded, leaving the decision up to them, and stood once again. "I'm going to get back with him, then. If you have any other questions, or need anything, just ask one of the nurses. And please tell Mr. Vecchio what I've told you. I don't think he needs to come in yet; but as Mr. Fraser's next of kin, he needs to be made aware of what's happened. Someone will let you know if there are any further changes."

Ma and Maria nodded but chose not to rise. "Thank you, Doctor," Ma offered quietly. Having done what she could for them, Dr. Stewart turned and hurried back to her patient.

Ben opened his eyes and frowned in confusion. Something wasn't right, obviously. He couldn't remember where he was supposed to be or how he'd gotten... What was he doing lying in the snow staring up through the trees as low clouds skittered quickly across the afternoon sky?

"Freezing your butt off?" Bob suggested helpfully. He suddenly leaned into his son's view and smiled down at him. "'Or maybe you were thinking about making a snow angel? Bet you haven't done that in several years. He straightened and frowned at the landscape around them without really seeing it. "Why is it as we grow up we forget about playing and having fun... until we get too old; and then everyone says we're senile for daring to do what we always wanted to do anyway?" He glanced back down and stamped his foot experimentally. " 'Course, the ground here's a little rough..."

"Dad..." Ben interrupted him, knowing the man could easily ramble endlessly if he didn't. But... This must be the Borderlands, he realized as he glanced around in confusion, or an aspect of them he hadn't seen. He'd dreamt of home before, but this... This was different, more like... when he visited his father's office in his closet. At least sometimes it was there, sometimes not. Usually, if the office was there, then there was something he and his father needed to talk about, even if Ben didn't understand why or what about.

He frowned. Despite occasionally having had to deal with his father's ghost, or spirit, or whatever he was, for more than two years now, Ben still wasn't convinced that their meetings weren't all a product of his own rather overactive subconscious. He tended to question his own sanity after every meeting, though if such meetings were a product of some slight insanity it seemed harmless enough. At the same time, he knew Buck Frobisher, and apparently Gerrard as well, had seen and spoken with his father, so...

"Still twisting your noggin' over that nonsense, Son?" Bob asked and offered a sad cluck of his tongue. "Stuff and nonsense. Reality is whatever we choose to perceive it to be, and we all see it differently. Now, are you going to lie there all day, or are we going to go ice fishing?"

"Ice fishing?"

"Yes!" Bob sighed in exasperation and frowned down at him. "Well, why do you think you're here? Your grandfather's chickens got sick and have flown the coop. There's a storm brewing. We've gotta hurry and round them up, then build an igloo to replace the old coop or they'll die."

Ben sat up and discovered himself dressed for ice fishing. His rod, tackle box and an ice auger lay beside him. "What has that got to do with ice fishing?" he wondered aloud, feeling rather dense for not being able to see a connection.

"Nothing," Bob answered. "We're going to do that after we save the chickens. So, come on already. Time's a flyin, and one never knows how fast time is going to fly in the Borderlands." He turned away, heading into the trees and leaving a very confused Ben to scramble after him... or make snow angels. He didn't seem to care which.

Ben shook his head and climbed quickly to his feet. He decided he must be dreaming, though it was certainly different from any dream he'd had before. There was something different about it that worried him. Something he was forgetting...

He shook his head again, dismissing the vague uneasiness, and bent to grab up his equipment before following after his father's form.

Ray sat silently beside the quiescent form, trying not to think as he listened to the soft, rhythmic hiss of the respirator. The nurse moved about them silently, performing the myriad tiny duties necessary to keep Benny's tenuous hold on life as stable as possible without disturbing the man who sat such a grim vigil at his friend's side.

He blinked dry, burning eyes and sat back with a sigh, realizing he'd been staring at one of the silently flashing readouts for far too long without really seeing it. He didn't know what the light meant, only that it was normal. Normal... As if anything about the situation could be called 'normal'. He lifted a hand to gently rub the protesting orbs and fought to ignore the headache that was beginning to pound at his temples.

He should get up, he knew; go get a cup of coffee, go talk to Ma or call Welsh... or something. A glance at his watch told him it was only two. He'd only been here a couple of hours. It felt like ten.

He remembered getting the call from Ma just before lunch. Seizure? Heart failure! He'd ignored her when she said the doctor didn't think he needed to come in, and had gone straight to Welsh. As he'd hoped, and more than half expected, Welsh took one look at him and dismissed him for the day, saying he'd be useless to the department anyway. (True, Ray knew.) ...And to keep him appraised.

A simple glance between the two men had spoken volumes. Ray knew his boss was more than stretching departmental regulations concerning time off, given all the time he'd already had off this year; and that Welsh was sure to get in some hot water because of it but he'd handle it. Just like Ray would handle whatever discipline the higher-ups demanded.

There went all the 'atta-boys' he'd gotten for helping to stop Bolt from blowing up Chicago.

He glanced at Benny with a little smile as he remembered pulling that crazy stunt of jumping off a bridge onto a speeding train. That sort of thing was much more super-Mountie's style. Benny was rubbing off on him...

The smile faded. Damn, but it was hard remembering stuff like that and then seeing his friend just lie there, wires and tubes and IV lines the only things to tell Ray he was still alive. There wasn't so much as a twitch from the comatose man in the bed.

He sighed again and suddenly let his head fall back, stretching his neck muscles, rolling his head from side to side. He needed a break, but a part of him was afraid to leave Benny's side. This wasn't like the last time, the time he'd shot Benny. Once he'd gotten out of surgery back then, no one had talked about him dying. They'd been afraid he might never walk again, but no one had thought he'd...

God, why did he have to remember that? Those first few days had been a nightmare for Ray. He'd been torn between anger and regret, grief and betrayal... And though he'd managed to work through his feelings about everything, managed to reestablish his friendship with Benny... this sitting here again was bringing it all back. He remembered it like it was yesterday.


God, he hated this! Hated the silent, interminable waiting. The not knowing. He'd grilled the doctor again when she'd shown up earlier. She'd taken him out into the hall to read him the riot act for doing so around her patient and promised that if he didn't control himself in future he wouldn't be allowed back in! He smiled at the memory. She had spunk. Then she'd answered his questions, just as bluntly as he'd asked them.

His smile disappeared again as he remembered the prognosis. It wasn't good. Benny's fever was up and they were having problems maintaining his fluid balance. The edema was getting worse again. Liver enzymes were rising and his kidneys were shutting down. When pressed, she'd dropped Benny's chances to less than thirty percent...

Ray still couldn't believe that a simple case of chicken pox was doing all this!

He swallowed around a tight throat and blinked eyes that were no longer so dry, forcing the fear back and away. Again. He wasn't giving up hope: 'No, dammit!' he told himself. This was Benny they were talking about. He couldn't die! He--

Ray abruptly brought himself up short. He was starting to lose it. More than thirty-six hours without much sleep and now all the stress of this...

Time for a break, whether he wanted one or not.

He leaned forward in the chair toward that pale face, ignoring the tape and gauze holding the ET tube in place, the slight jerk and expansion of the clear, ribbed plastic as the machine delivered another breath. "Hey, Benny," he whispered gently. He knew the man was comatose and probably couldn't hear him, but he wasn't going to just walk out without telling him either. "Look, ah, I gotta take a break here. Maybe catch a cup of coffee or something to eat. I won't be long."

He also needed to try and get Frannie back in here, he knew. The nurses would only allow one visitor at a time and, ever since she'd seen him go into convulsions, Frannie had balked at the idea of coming anywhere near him, terrified she was some kind of a bad luck charm or something. But Ray also knew that if Benny did die, she'd never forgive herself for not having been with him when he needed those who loved him to be there the most.

Maybe Ray could hunt the Doc down and get her to bend the rules so he could come in with Frannie, even if it was only for a minute...

He blew out an anxious breath and forced himself to stand up, giving the hand he'd been holding a gentle squeeze before releasing it, ignoring the slightly puffy look it had taken on. "Hang in there, Benny," he told his friend. "A few more hours and that med stuff they're giving you will be kicking butt and taking names. Don't go giving up on us yet."

The soft, predictable hiss of the respirator was his only answer.

He glanced over at the nurse and gave her a slight nod, in acknowledgment and silent gratitude for her quiet work. "I'll be back," he assured her as well as his friend, then turned and exited the room, praying as he did so that Benny would still be there when he got back.

"Hey, Ray."

His head jerked up in surprise as he re-entered the ICU waiting area and heard Jack Huey's soft voice. Not surprisingly, Elaine stood beside him. Ray blinked, taking in her silent and worried nod of greeting, and forced his weariness and dark thoughts away. "Jack. Elaine." He nodded in turn. "What you two doing here?" He already knew but, it being the middle of the day and all, he was a bit surprised.

"Getting my nails done," Elaine answered flippantly, trying to don an upbeat facade as he joined them. "So... how's he doing?" It was unnecessary to define which 'he' was meant.

Ray glanced to where Ma and Frannie sat watching them from across the waiting area. Apparently Maria had gone to take care of the kids.

"Yeah," Huey added, following Ray's glance and lowering his voice even further for the sake of his family. "Welsh said his heart stopped?" Jack couldn't believe that and figured his boss must have heard wrong or something. He was shocked when Ray nodded.

"Not good," the rather haggard looking man opposite the temporary team answered, his voice little more than a whisper as he turned slightly away from his family, making it even less likely for them to be able to make out what he was saying. He wasn't up to giving them the latest details just yet. "Pneumonia. Heart failure. Coma. Liver and kidneys shutting down..." He shook his head as he rattled off the short list and let out a sigh of frustration. "If the medicines they're giving him don't kick in real soon, he's not going to make it."

"'Not going to...'" Huey stared at Ray for a long moment and then shared a look of disbelief with his partner. Elaine was equally shocked. "Wha-wha-wait a minute," he then stuttered, shaking his head firmly and offering Ray a suddenly accusatory glare. "This is a joke, right? A really sick and disgusting joke... He has chicken pox, for Christ's sake! Nobody dies of chicken pox!"

Ray returned his glare with a look that was just too depressed and frustrated to carry anything but the truth. "You ever had chicken pox?" he asked from out of left field, causing them both to do double-takes.

"Yeah," Huey answered.

"No," Elaine answered. "Why?"

Ray stared dispassionately at her. "Go get vaccinated," he ordered bluntly and turned to go, not having any energy left to spare for more.

"Ray!" Huey kept his voice down but reached out to grab his arm The balding Italian shot him an exhausted and more than slightly irritated frown. Huey immediately released him and lifted his hands in mock surrender. "Look: I'm sorry. I... didn't know. Is there anything we can do? I mean..." He frowned helplessly, knowing there'd be nothing but still needing to offer. He'd never gotten particularly close to Fraser. There'd even been a point right after Louis was killed that he seriously hated the man. But he'd become something of an icon around the precinct. It was hard to imagine the place without him. And like him or not, Jack had always respected him as a police officer: a damn fine one at that. Besides, the Chicago Detective knew too well the terrible pain of losing a partner. That was something he'd never wish on anyone else, let alone someone like Ray.

Ray glanced down and nodded, silent acceptance and understanding of all Jack left unsaid, then lifted haunted eyes that spoke far too clearly of the deep fear and concern he fought to keep in check. "Pray," he said simply.

Huey glanced away, uncomfortable in the face of the intense emotions Ray was fighting not to project... and failing. Elaine bowed her head, tempted to give Ray a hug but knowing instinctively that it wouldn't be welcomed just now.

The other man suddenly closed his eyes and sighed. It was a massive sigh, seemingly coming from the bottom of his feet. He was so tired... With a massive effort, Ray shoved the feelings that Huey's questions had brought to the surface back under control again and lifted his head. "You never did tell me what you're doing here," he offered, presenting his two friends with a more normal (if tired) facade. He offered Huey a crooked if somewhat weak grin. "I mean, it's only a little after two. Don't you have a murder suspect to chase down and lose? No offense, Elaine."

Back on even footing once again, Huey answered the jeer with amused tolerance. "We were on our way to meet with a snitch on the Hinkey case at three," he answered. "We'll have that one cleared by the end of the week. The hospital was on our way."

Ray nodded, but he wasn't really listening and they both knew it.

"Yeah, we'd better get going," Elaine decided, glancing at Frannie and Ma Vecchio again and offering them an encouraging smile. Even discussing this was obviously taking a toll on Ray. "Wanta get a cup of coffee with us? I think I saw a machine on the way up?" She knew Ray needed a break, a chance to breathe before he went to sit with his family.

Again the tired nod. Ray glanced over at Ma and Frannie. "Either of you want some coffee?" he called. They merely shook their heads. "I need a caffeine hit," he told them. "Be back in a minute."

Jack and Elaine smiled and nodded their goodbyes to the women, Jack offering a thumbs up, and then walked over to the elevators with Ray between them. Ray didn't even notice, or just didn't care, when Jack draped a sympathetic arm about his shoulders as the elevator opened and they stepped inside.

Ben paused in his efforts and frowned at the structure around him. Igloos were supposed to be round, he thought, but for some reason this one wasn't cooperating. It should in fact be almost impossible to build a square igloo, but the laws of physics here seemed to be as confused as his father. Ben glanced to where the chickens sat clucking and fussing in the doorway of the barn and wondered again why they had to build an igloo in the first place. The dogs could always be staked and didn't seem particularly interested in the fowl anyway for some reason, though Ben knew they should be...

"Dad?" he asked in confusion.

"Yes, Son?" Bob replied without looking back as he lifted a triangular block of snow into position with surprising ease. It stayed in place even though Ben knew it shouldn't. At the same time, he wasn't sure why he knew it shouldn't...

"Dad..." he began again, then frowned and cocked his head to the side as he stared at the impossible block of snow.

"Yes?" Bob repeated, turning at last to see the very confused look on his son's face. "Something wrong?"

"I... I don't know..." he answered honestly.

"Feeling odd?" Bob asked in sudden, sharp concern.

Ben straightened his head, considering that. "I'm not sure what odd is..."

"Odd is anything that isn't what it was before. Are you feeling different?" He frowned, studying his son closely for any changes...

Ben cocked his head in the other direction, pensively... "I feel confused," he finally decided. "Like I'm forgetting something, something important..."

"Oh," Bob sighed in apparent relief. He offered a mild chuckle as whatever fear he'd held was dismissed. "Is that all?" He turned, brushing the snow from his hands and stomping it from his heavy mukluk-covered feet. "I was afraid for a second... Doesn't matter." He shrugged, settling his coat more comfortably. A part of him was afraid of losing Ben... not to death necessarily. Everyone died. But losing him the way he had Caroline... He dismissed the fear, knowing that he had no control over any of it anyway. Now wasn't the time to contemplate such mysteries. "You are forgetting something," he explained. "Nothing odd in realizing that."

"Am I supposed to forget?" Ben asked, confused by his father's ready acceptance of the fact.

"This is the Borderlands, Son," Bob answered, coming to stand beside him. "There's no 'supposed to' here. It just does that to people sometimes."

"Makes them forget?"

"Sometimes," Bob repeated and shrugged.

Ben put down the snow saw and brushed off his own gloved hands as his father watched. Then the younger man turned away and gazed out over the snow-covered wilderness around them. It was beautiful. Just as he remembered. But...

Something wasn't right.

He suddenly frowned as he realized how long he'd been here, or seemed to have been here. "Am I..." He couldn't quite bring himself to complete the thought.

"...Dead?" Bob completed it for him. "No, Son," he answered. "Not yet, anyway."

"Not yet..." Ben repeated, knowing the truth of the words even as he spoke them. "But I am dying, aren't I..." He turned back to his father, not really making it a question.

Bob sighed and looked down at his feet for a long moment. "Yes," he answered, then glanced back up. "But dying and being dead are two very different things, Son. The one doesn't always lead to the other."


"Meaning I don't know, Ben," his father answered seriously, glancing upward again and lifting a brow to indicate significance. "They haven't decided yet."

Ben glanced up as well, seeing only darkening clouds as the storm his father had predicted earlier continued to roll in. "This storm..." he suddenly offered, frowning as he considered the unchanging nature of all he'd seen around him... except the clouds.

"It's your illness, Son," Bob confirmed gravely. "It's getting worse."

"I'm sick?" Ben asked in confusion. He seemed to be trying to remember something. Something about a hospital and ... itching. Or choking. ...Why did those memories seem like one and the same thing? It didn't make sense.

"Dying never makes sense, Son," Bob answered the unvoiced thought gently, "until after you're dead. Then everything makes sense. Or maybe it just doesn't matter anymore. I'm not sure which it is. Probably both. Can't really explain it. I wouldn't worry about it yet, if I were you: there are simply some things the mortal mind was never meant to grasp."

Ben continued to frown in thought. "If I'm not dead... then what am I doing here?" He waved a hand to indicate the wide sweeping vista that was the Borderlands.

Bob smiled ruefully and pointed heavenward again. "Arguing with them!" he claimed. "Can't you hear it?"

Hear it? Ben stopped to listen, holding his breath and concentrating to try and catch something beyond the sounds of the chickens and slowly rising wind... It was Ray's voice he heard behind the other noises, but ...like a distant whisper, little more than a memory lifting up to echo within his own thoughts.

-- 'Hang in there, Benny,' the tired and gentle tones told him. 'A few more hours ... med stuff they're giving you ... kicking butt and taking names. Don't go giving up on us ...Don't go giving up... ...Don't give up... ... ...Don't ... give up... ... ...don't...' --

The words reverberated deep within Ben, touching a part of his soul and his soul answered. It was a disconcerting feeling... like tasting a hug, or smelling a sunset. And then the sound faded into silence again.

Bob nodded to himself. "You have a strong will to live, Son," he declared stoically. "You're not ready to cross over yet."

"I have a choice?" Ben asked, still painfully confused.

"Sometimes," Bob answered. With a sigh, he frowned up at the clouds. "However, as much as I wish you the best, and that those medicines the doctors are giving you would 'kick butt' as your friend so colorfully put it, I think we need to prepare for the worst..."

The older man suddenly sighed and bent to pick up another oddly shaped block of snow. "Come on, then," he said impatiently. "Grab up that saw and let's get back to work. This igloo isn't going to build itself, you know!"

Feeling very much like a man who suddenly found himself alone and lost at sea without a compass or sextant, Ben frowned at his father's apparent absurdity but followed his lead. He didn't understand the importance of the igloo or how anything here related to anything that must be happening in the real world, where he knew he must be lying in a hospital bed somewhere fighting for his life...

But he knew his father was right.

The other man's earlier words about reality being what he perceived it to be and everyone perceiving it differently came back to play in his mind. He had to wonder, if he were sick... maybe the fever had pushed him over the edge into full-fledged insanity?

Without further question, he bent to pick up the snow saw and began shaping blocks for the square igloo once again.

Frannie could feel herself trembling as Ray stood behind her tying the laces of the hospital gown and tried very hard to stop. Ray would surely notice it and give her another heart to heart lecture about 'keeping the faith' and everything. She bit her lip as she stared through the glass window into the isolation room where Benton lay so helpless and alone. He looked so terrible, so...


God, how could she even think that word! She closed her eyes and fought her fear and pain away, sending up yet another prayer for the man in that hospital bed. He was such a good man, after all, a man who made a difference to the world, who actually could and did change things for the better around him. Few people even bothered to try anymore. It was all about 'me' and 'mine' and 'I want', but Ben wasn't like that. The world would be a much poorer place if he were to ...die. And a part of her dreams, not only the part about a future with him, but another part, a bigger and more important part, that was embodied by him and all he stood for but which really had little to do with him, would die as well. He'd come to mean so much more than a handsome face to her. He was what the world should be, what it could be if only enough people tried. If he died, a small piece of that would have been stolen away forever.

And it would be her fault.

Oh, she'd heard the doctor's arguments, heard her mother and sister's reassurances, heard her brother telling her to stop being stupid... but the words were empty. Meaningless. None of it mattered. If Benton died then it would be because she hadn't paid attention, because she'd been too busy dreaming her stupid little girl faerie-tale fantasy dreams rather than noticing his cough and fever and...

She could have made the ER doctors listen. She could have raised a stink that would have blown the roof right off this place! She could have made them catch it in time, made them do X-rays and tests and see how serious it was. She should have! She should have done it when they first brought him in, not trusted her brother to handle it. The man had been left sitting in that exam room for how many hours before they did anything? She was an idiot! She should have-- And then maybe Benton wouldn't be--


She closed her eyes, fighting for control. A single terrified tear traced a warm path down her cold cheek, but she refused to let any others join it. She knew something about comas. She'd watched ER and General Hospital and Emergency. She knew the patients could sometimes hear you, sometimes know everything that was going on around them. Benton was in enough trouble and pain without her adding to it. It was her fault he was there to begin with. The least she could do was not make it any worse for him.

She felt Ray finally finish tying the back of the thing closed and then take her shoulders to turn her around. Hastily, she lifted a hand to wipe at her face, throwing her composure back around her like war-dented armor or something. It was impossible to hide the traces of her earlier tears, impossible to pretend that everything was normal and going to be fine, but she could put on a brave mask for Ray, could straighten her spine and meet his eyes with a semblance of calm. She was not going to fall apart again. Ray was right, she knew. She had to do this. She had to go in there and be with him, even if it was only for a couple of minutes. Even if it was...


Stop it, Frannie! she hissed within her own mind. She didn't know he if he were going to die or not. She had to stop thinking this way! God or someone else might be listening and just decide to pay attention. She had to think positive. She had to will him to fight, to keep fighting, to live!

She sent another fervent prayer streaking up to heaven.

Was the Patron Saint of cops the same as the Patron Saint of Mounties? Was there a guardian angel sitting at his side even now, doing battle for his life? Could her wishes and hopes and prayers strengthen that angel and help him fight for Ben?

Eyes of forest green dappled in sunlight gazed deeply into her own and saw far more than she wanted them to see. Her brother saw it and understood it and, to her surprise, accepted it. "You doing okay?" he asked just above a whisper. She could feel him willing his strength into her.

She offered a tight nod and even managed a slight smile. "I can do this," she said, reassuring herself as well as her brother.

"Are you sure?" the nurse who was helping them asked gently, placing an understanding and comforting arm about the smaller woman's shoulders. "It's important that you not get upset in there. He's in a coma and probably can't hear you, but sometimes..." She rubbed a gentle circle between Frannie's shoulder blades. "Sometimes they know. He needs to be concentrating on getting well, not worried about you, okay? If you're going to get upset, it would be better to stay out here."

"Yeah. We can just stand out here and look through the glass if you want," Ray added, following the nurse's lead. "I don't think it makes much of a difference."

"No," Frannie shook her head. "It makes a difference," she was certain. She needed to be in there. She needed to hold his hand. She needed to pray with him as well as for him. She needed to ask him for his forgiveness, even if she couldn't say the words out loud... She didn't know if Benton could hear her heart from out here.

It made a difference, to her if to no one else.

"Okay," he sighed, seeing the determination that had suddenly suffused her eyes. He glanced up and gave the nurse a reassuring nod. He knew Frannie could do this. Even more, he knew she needed to. "Okay," he repeated. "Ready?"

Frannie swallowed convulsively and nodded. Ray echoed her nod grimly and, replacing the nurse's gentle touch with his own, helped guide his sister through the door as the nurse held it open for them.

Ben frowned as he considered the interior of the square igloo and the clucking chickens who flapped and danced around them. He and his father had finished the odd and impossible construction about the same time the clouds began to growl with thunder.

Getting the chickens inside had been the tricky part.

He sighed and turned to contemplate his father. The ghost (or delusion or whatever he was!) was in the process of using Ben's brace and ice auger to drill a hole in the middle of the floor. The younger man hadn't even realized until that moment that they'd been building the igloo on the frozen lake behind his grandfather's place. He'd known, or at least his father had told him, that they were going to go ice fishing after building the igloo and saving the chickens. He hadn't realized that they'd be doing it from within the igloo with the chickens for company!

"Dad..." he offered, having to raise his voice to be heard over the squawking chickens. A black and white mottled feather typical of the ridiculous, silly creatures flew up in his face and startled him, but he quickly batted it away with an irritated frown. An igloo as a chicken coop didn't make a lot of sense, but using the same coop as an ice fishing shanty made even less! He shook his head in total bewilderment as his father glanced up from what he was doing. "Is any of this supposed to make any sense to me...a'tall?!" he asked in exasperation.

"Sense?" Bob repeated and glanced around, quite obviously not seeing anything so unusual about their situation. "What's not to make sense? You're sick, that's the storm rolling in. The chickens are... well, frankly the chickens are a damn nuisance." He suddenly turned to the ice shelf they'd built against one wall where most of the chickens had congregated and shouted, "Shut up already! 'Can't you see we're trying to have a conversation over here?"

Much to Ben's amazement, the chickens immediately fell silent and stared at his father in surprise.

"That's better," the older man decided. "Now settle down and find a roost for a while or we'll be having chicken for dinner instead of fish!"

The chickens immediately set about finding places on the shelf and settling down for a nap. Why this fact should bother him, Ben didn't know. After all, he commonly spoke with Diefenbaker and knew the wolf well enough to understand him in turn. Why shouldn't his father be able to speak to his grandfather's chickens... Some how that rationale just didn't want to fit. Ben shook his head and simply added the impossibility to the growing list of rather maddening twists and turns that reality seemed wont to take here.

Bob ignored the look of utter confusion. "You were saying, Son..? Oh!" He frowned as he suddenly remembered. "Making sense of everything, wasn't it?"

Ben nodded. "I understand the storm coming in represents my illness," he allowed, pausing a moment to listen to the winds that were beginning to whip around beyond their snug little shelter, "but, ah..." He frowned at the igloo and the chickens and lifted an eyebrow when he glanced at the hole his father was trying to make.

"It's really quite simple," Bob answered, turning to take up the auger and brace again. "Everything here either represents your illness or your fight against it. The storm is your illness, the igloo is you fight, the strength of its walls is directly proportional to your strength. Frankly..." he frowned at the odd construction, "it's not as strong as I'd like. The chickens, of course, are the chicken pox... though I do wish you'd chosen a less literal representation than your grandfather's French Houdans! Why couldn't you just imagine yourself covered in spots? Oh well, it's your head. I suppose you have your reasons." He offered a soft grunt of effort as he twisted the auger into the ice underfoot. "I just hope you imagined nice thick ice here because I certainly don't relish the idea of taking a plunge in the lake!"

Ray paused just beyond the doorway to Benny's room as Frannie, in front of him, hesitated. This wasn't going to be easy for her, but he knew it was important. Despite all the sibling rivalry that existed between them, he really did love his kid sister. He hated to see her hurting and dared offer a tiny prayer for a minor miracle: that Benny would wake up while they were there and somehow they'd know everything would be all right.

He glanced around the room as he waited for his sister, noting the same things he'd noted before: the soft, low thrum of the air filter as it worked to maintain a slight negative air pressure preventing the spread of disease; the picayune, almost sweet antiseptic smell that was even stronger in here than elsewhere in the hospital; the quiet and somehow reassuring sounds of the various pieces of equipment which surrounded their friend...

There had been changes too: another IV bag had been hung, its line snaking inside the collar of his hospital gown where fresh bandaging peaked out. Ray realized it must be the 'central line' that he'd been asked to approve. Also, the visual display of the monitor over Benny's head had been changed, now showing extra lines of information that Ray couldn't even begin to interpret. The sound of the ventilator had changed as well, the various lights and settings having been adjusted yet again. The sound of it was faster and shorter, more steady and predictable than he remembered.

And Benny... Was it just his imagination, or did he really look even worse than he had only a couple of hours ago?

Ray's eyes searched out the nurse, noting she was the same one as before. "How's he doing?" he asked quietly.

"I'm not his doctor, Mr. Vecchio," she answered evasively. "I can't say. About all I can tell you is that we've managed to get his temperature back down. That's one good thing at least."

One good thing. Only one, but it was a step in the right direction. The first positive step he'd heard since bringing Benny in -- Ray glanced at his watch -- Lord, was it really only eighteen hours ago? It felt like they'd been here for days!

Frannie interrupted his musing by stepping forward again and moving to Benny's bedside. Ray watched her silently as she hesitated again.

"You're welcome to talk to him," the nurse told her gently. "I'm sure he'd like the company."

"What... what's wrong with his hands?"

Ray moved to join his sister and followed her gaze to where Benny's hands rested at his side, the white gauze-like restraints very stark against the puffy and slightly yellow looking skin.

"The swelling, you mean?"

Frannie nodded.

"Well, he's very sick right now," the nurse explained gently. "His body isn't working as well as it needs too in order to keep his system flushed out, so his tissues are having to handle the overload. He's retaining a little fluid. You can hold his hand if you'd like. Just be gentle. He'll bruise very easy right now."

Again, Frannie merely nodded. Ray could only guess what it had cost her to speak in the first place. She closed her eyes for a short second, perhaps praying for strength, and then opened them again as she gently wrapped the lifeless hand in her own small grasp. Ray wrapped an arm about her shoulders in turn, wishing there was more he could do – for either of them.

"Wait..." Ben interrupted, finding he was only becoming more confused with his father's attempt to explain. "You mean I'm doing all this?"

"Of course you are!" Bob exclaimed. He was suddenly through the ice and lifting the auger free to inspect his handy work. "You don't think any of this is my idea, do you? Although I don't particularly mind the idea of going ice fishing with you. That's something we never had a chance to do when I was alive, did we?"

"Only because you never chose to," Ben rejoined, remembering how it had been his grandfather who taught him the way of it: taught him how to judge the ice and pick a likely spot, how to use the auger and brace and what to do if he fell through the ice... It was his grandfather who'd helped him rig his first pole and set up his first tip-up, taught him how to jig the line and what bait worked best with what fish... It was his grandfather who'd helped him haul in his very first catch and who'd praised him for his patience and diligence, and then who'd taught him how to clean and prepare the meat for cooking or smoking...

But it had been his father Ben had wanted to show off his new skills to on those rare occasions he'd come to visit.

"I'm choosing to now, Son," Bob offered with surprising gentleness.

Then suddenly he was shaking his head and offered Ben an irritated frown, destroying the moment. "Not everything has to make sense, you know. Stop wasting your time trying to figure it out and simply think of this all as a vacation of sorts. A very strange vacation perhaps, but... I already told you, reality is whatever you perceive it to be and we all perceive it differently. The Borderlands are as real as I am, take that for whatever you think it's worth. Though if you're really going to be using that hairy ant lure, I'm afraid we'll be here all day and wind up having chicken for dinner after all."

One of the chickens offered a sharp protest.

"Are you volunteering?" Bob asked. The young rooster immediately fell silent again.

Ben ignored the exchange and glanced down at his hands, realizing he was in the midst of tying a small black lure onto his fishing line. "It's a hackle ant," Ben corrected him off hand, his mind wrestling with the paradox of killing a chicken in the Borderlands given that the chicken was presumably already dead... Of course the same paradox would hold true for the fish too. "...and it's a preferred lure for Thymallus Arcticus because it resembles the black fly. Terrestrial insects form the larger part of their diet."

"Thymous Arctic what-its?" Bob asked in total confusion.

"Thymallus Arcticus," he repeated and glanced up to roll his eyes at his father. How could a man whose job, or a part of it anyway, included checking fish license stamps against a fisherman's catch do that job if he didn't know the various types of fish that were permitted? "Arctic Grayling, Dad," he supplied the more common name.

"Grayling?" Bob scoffed. "When there's Steelhead Trout and Sockeyed Salmon to be had?"

Ben stared at his father for a long moment and then simply shook his head as he turned his attention back to what he was doing. Perhaps his father was right. Perhaps it would be best if he simply looked at this as a vacation from reality.

He glanced up again, staring into the middle distance, as he realized what a very dangerous thought that could be...

Again he shook his head, dismissing such thoughts as just one of the many mysteries of death he really didn't want to explore too closely, especially as he wasn't dead yet! With a frown for his own too inquisitive mind and the vagaries of fate he didn't seem to have any control over, he concentrated on the simple act of lowering his jig into the hole his father had made. Using his foot, he hooked the wooden bucket he'd carried his tackle in and, flipping it over, sank down upon the makeshift stool. His father set the auger aside and took up his own pole, choosing to use live bait rather than a lure. 'Though where he'd managed to dig up meal worms... Ben glanced at his own line and gave it a light jig. His father had brought two poles and was apparently rigging the first as a static line. Ben knew he'd rig a jig for the second pole so as to entice the more aggressive fish... "It's too late in the season for Salmon, Dad," he argued belatedly

Bob offered another mocking chuckle. "Shows what you know about the Borderlands, Son. Grayling. Yuck!" He offered a mock shudder of distaste.

"I happen to like it!" Ben rejoined in surprise.

"Good for you!" Bob answered with the exact same exasperated tone. "You can have any I happen to catch, otherwise I'll just toss 'em back."

Ben shook his head, knowing that if this were indeed all just a product of some feverish delusion, then the mere idea of fishing for Sockeyed Salmon in a landlocked lake let alone under such conditions would have never occurred to him even in his wildest imaginings! With a sigh, he leaned back slightly and happened to glance up at the cloud covered sky through the smoke hole in the middle of the igloo's roof, judging the storm with a practiced eye; and then he realized this wasn't the kind of storm he could judge.

He suddenly frowned. "The wind stopped," he realized.

Bob followed his gaze upward, pausing to listen as well, then nodded grimly. "Decision time," he decided. "Guess the ice fishing will have to wait for another time, Son."

Ben frowned, not sure what to expect. Not that he'd been sure of anything since opening his eyes to a cloud scrubbed sky. "What happens now?" he asked, wondering in a strangely dispassionate way if he were going to live or die, but unable to ask such a question directly. He'd somehow thought the storm itself would be his answer. He'd expected it to break up and disappear if he were to live, or to sweep in with the strength of a hurricane if he were to die...

Bob shrugged and shook his head. "'Haven't got the foggiest, Son," he answered, his breath suddenly pluming in the air between them. A haze seemed to form as well and they both glanced down in sudden confusion only to realize a heavy fog was now pouring into the small igloo from the hole in the ice at their feet, rising quickly to fill the interior. Bob frowned up at Ben as the younger man stood in concern. "Do you always have to be so literal?" he asked him even as the mist continued to rise and swirl, enshrouding and then stealing his form from Ben's view.

"Dad!" Ben called in sharp concern. He stepped forward, suddenly frightened for the first time and not wanting to lose his father.

And then he was falling.

He immediately realized his mistake, knowing he'd stepped directly into the fishing hole his father had created. He threw his hands and arms outward, hoping to catch himself and, if he were lucky, keep from breaking his fool leg. Yet, thick though the ice had been, it was now suddenly too thin to support the weight of his fall. He felt it crack and give beneath him and then he was plunging downward into the icy waters of the lake. He barely caught a breath in time as the freezing depths closed over his head. The water seemed to boil around him as air escaped from his many layers of clothing and rushed upward, even as the weight of the instantly water-logged material dragged him down, pulling him to a watery grave he wasn't ready to accept. He struggled, floundering as he tried to fight his way back to the surface, desperately trying to remember everything he'd ever known about surviving such watery traps.

His hand struck something hard above him and he glanced upward only to realize the hole had closed in over him. Impossible in real life unless he were caught in a current and... But this was the Borderlands. And there was no current here. Pushing down off the ice, he urgently cast about, desperately searching for the hole. He could find no break in the cold, hard surface above him.

He was trapped.

Kicking hard and drawing on every last ounce of strength he had, refusing to give in, he shot upward again, thrusting his fists against that blue-gray ceiling to no avail. Air was forced out of his lungs with the effort and he watched as the bubbles joined those caused by his fall. They danced and shimmered, breaking apart and reforming, then spreading out across that smooth inverted surface. He knew he was going to drown.

The memory of the last time he'd thought he was going to drown flashed through his mind. The icy shock of immersion, the pain and flash of light behind his eyes as his head struck something, fighting to stay conscious even as he felt himself inhaling water, Dief suddenly grabbing his coat and pulling him to the surface, dragging him toward an ice shelf...

There would be no half-wolf to rescue him this time.

It was ironic in a way. He'd been having such difficulty understanding all the symbolism of everything that was happening around him: the storm, the igloo, the chickens... This? This he understood. He almost should have expected it. Images from his memory danced within the shimmering bubbles of trapped air above him. He remembered the chicken pox now, remembered the hospital and being intubated, remembered the isolation room and Meg's visit and seeing himself on the bed as the doctor fought to resuscitate him. Remembered he had pneumonia... Of course he was drowning.

It made perfect sense.

He closed his eyes and let his fear fade away, tasting only regret now as he considered all he hadn't done and would never know. As a police officer, he'd faced death many times before, but he'd never thought something as innocuous as the chicken pox would prove his end. He had no desire to die but obviously the decision had been made and there was no sense in fighting it. He let himself relax and sink into the waters around him. They were no longer cold, but warm and welcoming. Though perhaps that was the effects of hypothermia and not approaching death. Cold water drowning victims could often be revived even after more than an hour under water.

But then, he wasn't really drowning in the lake behind his grandfather's house, so...

His lungs were burning with the need to breathe, yet he continued holding his breath even as he felt his consciousness slipping away, or whatever strange unconscious state he'd actually been in slipping away. He wouldn't be able to hold it much longer.

He opened his eyes one last time, wondering what came next? He was sinking into a pool of dancing light, the shimmering rays at his feet shooting past him to reflect off the trapped air so far over head. Yet he saw those iridescent bubbles quite clearly. His memories were trapped up there. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad.

His vision was beginning to tunnel, the images began to swirl. He felt a deep peace settle upon him... and it frightened him. Not because he feared death or what waited beyond, but because he simply wasn't done living yet!

The images over head suddenly seemed to coalesce into one. It was a picture of himself, lying in the hospital bed hooked up to the ventilator with Ray and Francesca standing beside him. He could see Ray saying something, but the words didn't reach him this time. The image seemed to sharpen in on his sister. She wasn't speaking but he heard her just the same, felt her pain and guilt, the pulse of her strength being willed into him and the pull of her unspoken plea that he should live. He knew she'd blame herself if he died.

That was something he couldn't let happen.

Not yet! his mind suddenly shouted, shattering the peace that surrounded him. Anger answered in its wake, surging through his fading consciousness and granting him a few extra seconds. He was not going to give up! He would not simply accede defeat! He kicked his feet, shooting toward the surface and the barrier there as fast and as hard as he could.

And God smiled...

An alarm broke the relative silence of the room causing Frannie to jump half-out of her socks - or stockings, she corrected the thought. "What?" she asked anxiously, immediately looking for the nurse. The older woman with her pastel floral scrubs and elasticized paper hair cap instantly appeared beside them, frowning up at the various squiggles and flashing numbers on the cardiac monitor above his bed even as she reached up to silence the alarm. "What is it?" Frannie asked again. The nurse didn't answer. Instead, she reached out behind his bed and pressed a button on the wall which immediately started flashing red.

The door of the small room flew open to admit a tight-lipped Dr. Stewart still in the process of throwing on a scrub gown. Ray quickly wrapped his arm about Frannie's shoulders and drew her out of the way as the other woman swept forward. "I was just on my way to see you, Mr. Fraser," she offered the room at large. "No need to be so impatient." She was quickly followed by two more nurses. "What's happening?" she demanded of the attending nurse.

"Blood pressure's crashing: 60/45 and falling. He's throwing multiform PVCs."

The doctor frowned up at the cardiac monitor for a long moment and then down at her patient. "What are you up to now, Mr. Fraser? ...Okay, people, check all his leads and connections. Make sure his ET tube hasn't slipped; check the naso-gastric tube, all catheters, peripheral pulses... If he's bleeding, I need to figure out where. And someone draw blood for an immediate CBC." She bent to check his chest tube herself even as the blankets were carefully swept aside leaving him in only the thin hospital gown as the others began a systematic check of his person.

The chest tube checked out: no sign of blood in the collection unit or the urine collection bag, and no sign of clogging either. The doctor shook her head as she straightened to begin palpating his abdomen. "I guess I was too quick in ordering him off the lidocaine." She frowned as she worked. "Hang another bag while I try to figure out his game plan here..."

Frannie stood frozen in her brother's hold as the doctor and nurses went about their jobs with quiet urgency, 'though... the doctor seemed more confused than really alarmed. Frannie couldn't forget the last time she'd tried to visit Benton and he'd nearly died. Not again! her mind screamed silently as she held her hands to her open mouth, afraid to even breathe for fear of interrupting what the doctor was trying to do. She watched as a nurse hurried out with the requested blood sample. Please, dear God, not again...

"Pressure's coming up," someone announced unexpectedly. The entire room glanced up at Ben's cardiac monitor and watched as the numbers changed.

The doctor offered Ben a slightly amused shake of her head. "You just like making my life interesting, don't you?" she asked him rhetorically even as she continued checking his abdomen. The others finished their checks as well and reported their findings. Dr. Stewart straightened and folded her arms as she watched the lidocaine being hung. "Let's try 2 mg per minute and see how he tolerates it. I'd really like to get rid of those stupid PVCs."

One of the nurses suddenly spotted Ray and Frannie off to the side. She started over only to immediately turn back to the bed when another alarm sounded. The doctor frowned and turned to the respirator, hitting a switch to silence the insistent beep. "Relax, Mr. Fraser," she told her patient calmly, "let the machine do its job..." She watched the readouts for a long moment then turned back to Ben with a pensive frown.

The nurse who'd started toward Ray and Frannie was suddenly in front of them. "I'm afraid you're going to have to leave," she told them quietly, directing them to the door.

"Wait." Dr. Stewart's voice was calm but firm. The three stopped and glanced toward her, not sure whom she was addressing. She held up her hand to stay their leaving and turned to issue a few orders to Ben's attending nurse. Then she nodded a dismissal at the others who'd followed her in and they turned to leave. "Come here..." She turned back to Ray and Frannie, gesturing them back to the bedside. "Don't worry," she assured them. "He's fine. I think he likes to play the mystery game. That's when patients like him decide to pull momentary stunts to get our attention but then self-correct before we can figure it out." She shrugged. "He's a cop, I imagine he loves mysteries. I don't think it was anything serious. Pressure's back up; and PVCs are nothing more than a cardiac hic-up. Premature ventricular contractions. Lots of people have them. Nothing at this point to be too worried about. I think he's actually trying to wake up." She nodded encouragingly and gestured again. "Come on ..."

Brother and sister exchanged a confused glance but hesitantly moved forward to join her.

"That second alarm you heard was a pressure limit sensor. He's fighting the vent a bit," she explained. "Which is what makes me think he may be coming around." She stepped aside and physically directed the pair back to Benny's side. "I want you two to talk to him."

"Talk to him?" Ray echoed.

The doctor nodded. "Mr. Fraser?" she called to her patient. "You've got visitors..." Again, she nodded at the pair, then turned to frown down at the respirator.

Frannie was still too shaken by what they'd just witnessed to have any idea of what to say. She watched as her brother swallowed around a dry throat and leaned forward, closer to Benny's ear. "Hey, Benny," Frannie heard him offer. "You want to open your eyes for us, just so we know you're done scaring us?"

Frannie's attention was suddenly drawn to Benton's hand. Had it moved?

"...Look," her brother continued, "I'm going bald already, I don't need you giving me premature gray as well."

Definite movement this time. He even turned his head slightly! Frannie bit her lip to keep a happy cry contained as she moved forward and gently cradled that puffy appendage in her own much smaller hands. A part of her was terrified to do so, terrified of daring to hope; but his color did look better, didn't it? She wasn't just imagining it, was she?

"Hey, Frase..." she dared whisper softly. She lifted the hand and brought it up to her face. It was so cold. She actually thought she felt him shiver! She glanced to the doctor in concern. "Should he be cold?" she asked.

"Probably. Low blood pressure, poor perfusion... It's pretty normal." The doctor nodded and glanced at the nurse. "Let's cover him back up again." She turned back to the ventilator as the covers were gently replaced and the machine delivered another breath. "Keep talking to him..."

The hand Frannie was holding definitely moved!

"Frase?" Frannie repeated. This time her voice was stronger. She gently stroked the cold hand, trying to warm it but remembering that the nurse had said he would bruise very easily because of the excess fluid. And of course she was worried about the pox marks, but they all seemed to be crusted over which was another good sign, she told herself, right?

"Benton?" she tried again, reverting to his personal name. It was a special name, just like him. No one else called him that. And no one else except her Ma called her Francesca. Well, except when someone got mad at her. She dismissed the thought. "Benton, open your eyes," she told him. The eyes beneath the lids moved, but did not open. "...Ray might look good bald and gray, but you don't want to see me like that, do you? ...Benton?"

His hand suddenly tightened on hers as the eyelids fluttered, lifting as with great effort, and the blue-gray depths glanced around in confusion. The machine delivered another breath and Frannie saw fear in his eyes as he automatically fought it.

"No! No!" Frannie told him, holding his hand against her face again even as she reached out to smooth the tangled, sweat-matted hair from off his brow. She felt a happy tear trace down her cheek. She couldn't help but feel this was all a good sign, feel that his waking up meant that he'd be all right! A small part of her was shouting a warning that she was jumping to conclusions. He was still very sick, still on the ventilator, still in ICU... but she couldn't help it. It had to be a good sign! It just had to be! "It's okay!" she promised him. "It's just the ventilator. You've been sick. Remember? But it's okay now. You're going to be okay now." She reached up to wipe the tear away and knew she was grinning like an idiot.

The eyes blinked in confusion again and she knew he wasn't hearing what she said, but at least the fear had receded.

"Hey, Benny," Ray said, leaning over her shoulder into his line of sight. "That anti-viral stuff they're giving you should be kicking in any time now. You just gotta hold on a little longer, okay Buddy? Just a little bit longer."

Dr. Stewart had moved around to the far side of the bed and now took out her stethoscope to listen to his lungs. He tried to lift the hand on that side toward his face and turned his head, but Dr. Stewart intercepted the move even before the restraint brought him up short. He glanced in confusion toward the doctor. "It's all right Mr. Fraser," she assured him calmly. "You're in a hospital. I'm your doctor. Just relax."

He released Frannie's hand and discovered the restraint there as he again tried to reach up to the endotracheal tube.

"What's wrong with him?" Ray asked in alarm even as Frannie claimed his hand again and offered soothing, calming reassurances that had Ben relaxing again and frowning at her with half-glazed eyes.

"He's just a little confused," the doctor assured them. "The various medications he's on will do that. It's to be expected. Just help me keep him calm."

The blue-gray gaze swung back in her direction. "Hi, there," she greeted him with a smile as she swung her stethoscope into place. "Want to initiate a breath for me?"

He seemed to finally understand that he was on a respirator and did as she asked. She listened closely while his lungs expanded and then relaxed again. She listened through another two breaths before removing the ear pieces of the stethoscope and swinging it back around to its customary place draped about her neck. She suddenly paused with a pensive frown and undraped it again. "Gotta remember to sterilize it before I leave," she told herself aloud. She cocked her head at Ben again. "You're doing good, Mr. Fraser," she decided, speaking clearly and calmly. "Very good. Now go back to sleep for me."

Ray and Frannie glanced up at her in confusion.

"I think the Acyclovir is starting to work. His latest blood gases showed definite improvement and his lungs sound a bit better than I was expecting. I just ordered a complete blood chemistry and I'll know more when it comes back, but I'm feeling a bit more optimistic." She turned her attention back to her patient with a smile. "It's still important you rest, though. It's going to take your body a little while to realize you're getting better. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is sleep."

"But then, why..." Frannie frowned in confusion. "I mean..."

"I wanted to make sure he was coming out of the coma, Frannie," the doctor answered and again glanced at Ben. "Besides, a little positive reassurance from your friends is always a good thing. Hang in there, Mr. Fraser, we'll have you back home in a week."

"A week?" Ray echoed in disbelief as he followed her toward the door. "You're kidding me!"

Frannie ignored them and stepped forward to gently take up Benton's hand again. She'd seen the increased confusion in his eyes as he heard the doctor mention a coma. "Just go back to sleep, Benton," she told him gently. "We'll be here when you wake up. Just no more scaring us, okay?"

She saw him struggling to understand, but also saw that he was very tired. After a few more moments, he gave up the effort and dismissed his questions for another time. The blue-gray eyes closed with a little more prompting and the body relaxed while she continued to gently hold his hand. Frannie knew he still had a long road ahead to full recovery, but she also knew in her heart of hearts that the real danger was finally over. Silently, she bowed her head thanking God for answering all their prayers.


He let the water run over the razor, rinsing it clean, then shook it dry as he closed the faucet once more. Ignoring the tremor that gripped his fingers, he set the implement aside and reached for a hand towel. The white terry cloth made quick work of the last traces of shaving crème. A pale, gaunt face stared back at him from the hospital mirror. Obviously, he'd lost weight. He didn't know how much but it was plainly visible in the face before him. The eyes were sunken with slight but noticeable circles under their pale depths and the cheeks were too prominent. The pox marks were quickly fading to nothing and, while he'd enjoyed being able to shave at last, it made little difference in his appearance. He never had been able to grow a decent beard...

He frowned at his hair. At least that hadn't changed, though it was a bit longer than he normally liked. He reached up and tried to pat a couple of damps tendrils back into place but they were being as rebellious as he felt.

Ben was not happy. He should be ecstatic, he knew. Eight days in hospital and he was finally being released.

But he wasn't going home.

He sighed and bowed his head, leaning against the hospital sink. He'd had quite enough molly-coddling over the last week to last him a lifetime! He was perfectly capable of returning to his small apartment and looking after himself and Diefenbaker. After all, the doctor had cleared him to return to light duty starting Monday. But 'Ma' had spoken; and, much to his dismay, Inspector Thatcher had concurred! Ray would be here shortly to take him back to the Vecchio house. Once there, he would not be released until Mrs. Vecchio approved and that included returning to work despite his doctor's okay.

Straightening, he frowned at the mirror again. He was not a good patient and he knew it. This wasn't like when Ray had shot him in the back. He'd been seriously injured then and had to go through two months of physical rehabilitation. This... So, all right, he'd learned the hard way that chicken pox wasn't something to be taken lightly. He'd nearly died. However, he was now well on the road to recovery. Despite his tendency to tire easily and his obvious physical weakness, he didn't feel particularly bad. All he needed was a little exercise, some hearty food and some fresh air. Lying around in bed while others waited on him hand and foot was not something he enjoyed. But apparently it was something he was going to have to endure. There would be no getting around it. Arguing with Ray was one thing. The idea of challenging the combined authority of Inspector Thatcher and Mrs. Vecchio was... beyond comprehension! He'd go so far as to call it foolhardy!

But, then, he'd been called worse things before. His arguments had fallen on deaf ears.

He gathered up his shaving kit, what little of it he had, and moved back to the bed where he'd already packed his few personal belongings into a plastic hospital bag and tall cardboard box one of the nurses was kind enough to provide. The majority of the flowers had been donated to the geriatric wing and the stuffed animals had gone to pediatrics. One bouquet remained, intended for Mrs. Vecchio. He'd spent the morning filling out paperwork, then showered and changed, brushed his teeth and shaved. All that remained now was to await his ride.

With a shake of his head, he moved to the box and tossed his kit on top. Grasping it firmly with the intent to move it, he was startled to hear Francesca yell at him.

"And just what do you think you're doing, Benton Fraser?" she demanded firmly. He turned to see the petite brunette, passion-red lipstick, tight pink crop-top, bare mid-drift, leather mini-skirt, hands on hips, framed in the hospital doorway... glaring at him.

He relaxed slightly when he caught sight of her brother behind her... until he saw the same censorious glare on his face.

Ben frowned in confusion as the pair hurried forward. "I'm just... just--"

"--Exerting yourself!" Frannie interjected, slapping his hands away from the box.

"--Packing," he corrected her.

Ray ignored them both, sweeping in to transfer the offending container to a spot beside the visitor's chair. "This thing weighs a ton!" he exclaimed, peering down into it in surprise. "What you got in here? The kitchen sink?"

"Books, Ray," he answered with a soft, irritated sigh for the obvious exaggeration. "Turnbull was thoughtful enough to lend me several of his treasured works by Louis L'Amour while I was recovering."

"Good thing this is a strong box or they'd be all over the floor! And you thought you were going to lift this?"

"It's just a box, Ray."

"Yeah, well it definitely weighs more than ten pounds," the other man rejoined, reminding him of doctor's orders.

Ben rolled his eyes. He thought the doctor's orders were a bit ridiculous.

Frannie suddenly surprised him, having snuck close while his attention was on Ray. She grabbed his shoulders and, using his own natural instinct to step away against him, lightly shoved him back upon his bed. "Sit!" she ordered after the fact.

He frowned sharply up at both of them. "I am not an invalid," he informed them firmly.

"Yes, you are!" Frannie corrected him sharply. "You've still got that peri...card... deckium stuff, and you know you're not supposed to be doing anything like that!" She waved a hand at the box.

"pericarditis," he corrected her patiently. "It's an infection of the pericardium, or the heart sac, secondary to the chicken pox, much as the pneumonia was, and very mild. I'm recovering from it as I am everything else. My body simply needs time to reabsorb the excess fluids there. I'm doing quite well, Francesca, thank you kindly. My doctor has cleared me to return to light duty."

Frannie rolled her eyes and offered a scoffing sound. "You're doctor doesn't know you very well, does she, Frase? I don't think you know what 'light duty' is!"

"Which is precisely why Thatcher agreed to leave 'that' decision up to Ma," Ray offered with a knowing grin. Benny was going nowhere until he was a lot stronger than he was presently. The grin became a slight frown as he gazed at his friend. It wasn't hard to detect the poor man's dissatisfaction with everything. He was really quite upset, even if he refused to raise his voice or attempt another argument that would get him nowhere. It was also quite clear that he was tired already when all he'd done was get ready and pack!

"You just got over the chicken pox, Fraser!" Frannie continued more gently. It seemed somehow strange that the common childhood ailment had gone from being 'just chicken pox' to 'chicken pox!' in only two short weeks, ' though both men had to admit that their views concerning the disease had undergone a radical change as well. "I'm sorry!" she suddenly blurted, surprising both men. "I should have known something was wrong. I should have gotten you to the hospital sooner. None of this would have happened if I... if I--"

"--Francesca," Ben quickly interrupted her and shook his head in confusion. She bit her lip and glanced up, looking like she was about to cry: A terrifying sight for any man! "Francesca," he repeated quickly, hoping to forestall the tears, "there's nothing to be sorry about. You did nothing wrong."

She looked up and away, fighting her tears, but the guilt was something she wouldn't let go.

"Come here you silly goose," Ray offered, wrapping his arms around her and giving her a much needed hug. "Now what's all this nonsense? We've been through this before. Ma said the Doc already talked to you and told you it wasn't anybody's fault. These things happen."

"I know. But... but--"

"But what? You think because you were making googly eyes at him you missed something?" Ray suggested, knowing her far too well. She shot Ben an embarrassed look and he glanced away, granting her at least a small semblance of privacy. "What about Ma?" Ray continued. "She nursed all us kids through the chicken pox as we were growing up. And two out of three grand kids. Don't you think that if anyone shoulda caught on to how serious things were, it would have been Ma? Unless, of course, you think Ma was making googly eyes at him too?" He awarded Benny's startled look a wink.

Ben bit back a smile and ducked his head again as Frannie exclaimed, "Ray!"

"What?" he asked innocently. "You don't think Ma can't notice a handsome man?"

Frannie rolled her eyes. "Don't be crazy."

"It's no more crazy than you beating yourself up over Benny winding up in the hospital!" Ray exclaimed. "She knows more about taking care of the people she loves than you and I combined, but it was you who told me to call the ambulance. So, either you weren't as distracted by Fraser here as much as you want to think you were, or Ma's got a secret crush on the poor guy. Which is it?"

"All right! All right!" Frannie relented, shaking her head. She was beat and knew it. She couldn't blame herself and not blame her mother as well, so that meant that everything everyone had been telling her was true after all. It wasn't her fault. It was no one's fault. "You made your point."

"Did I?" Ray asked, frowning at her face closely as he tried to read her expression. "Cause I know you're not an idiot but you're sounding like one. You might be a ditz maybe, but--"

Frannie gave him a pained expression and mock punch to his shoulder. "Enough!" she declared. "Get outta here and make yourself useful already. Go find a nurse with a wheelchair so we can breeze this joint."

Ray winced. "Blow this joint, Frannie."

"Blow... breeze... fly away on the wind!" She lifted her hands in exasperation. "You know what I mean!"

"Fine!" Ray capitulated. "Fine I'll go fetch Fraser's Chariot. You sit on him and make sure he doesn't move." Frannie glanced after her brother in mild surprise and then shook her head, dismissing the thought that sprang instantly to mind. It took Ray another moment to realize what he'd said. "Not literally!" he shouted back over his shoulder as he disappeared out the door.

"Party pooper," she murmured, but her heart wasn't in it. She glanced at Fraser and felt a smile tug at her lips as he awarded her the 'Mountie caught in the headlights' look. She managed to award him a wink before she turned away looking for a place to sit. With a sigh, she moved the hospital bag with his bath robe and other stuff off the visitor's chair and plopped herself down to wait with him. She sighed again and frowned down at her hands. Why was it so hard for her to accept Ray and Ma and the Doc's words? She still felt guilty... She glanced back up and realized that Fraser was still staring at her. "Relax, Fraser," she sighed, glancing down again. "I won't bite. I promise." She wondered if she'd have the guts to really flirt with him ever again!

"Unless I want you too."

She glanced up in surprise and was awarded a wink of her own before his face again assumed that incredible deadpan look that only he could manage. She stared at him for a long moment in confused amazement. Had he... Was he... For a moment she wondered if she'd actually seen the wink at all! And then she finally caught a faint glint of laughter lurking in his eyes and knew he was teasing her. Hard to believe perhaps, but...

He was playing, she realized. He actually liked her flirting! Or... at least he'd learned to tolerate it. He might not be willing to return her attentions but they no longer frightened him. She grinned and turned away, contemplating possibilites...

...And Fraser smiled a secret smile. She was no longer blaming herself for everything, and that was important to him. He still had a lot of healing to do, and was not looking forward to the next few weeks as he fought to regain his freedom as well as his health, but his world as well as his body was apparently back on the mend again.

Ray reappeared with a chair and nurse in tow, breezing forward with a jovial strut. "Okay, Fraser, plant your caboose here and let's get this show on the road. That wolf of yours refused to wait for you at home and I'm very much afraid he's gonna to tear out my throat, or at least the upholstery in the Riv, if we don't get you downstairs pronto. You're paying for any damages you know."

Yes, he thought contentedly as he forced himself to accept the mandatory wheelchair and then listened to Ray and Frannie arguing about what to do with the box, finally putting it in his lap for the ride downstairs, everything was back to normal.
The End

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am not a doctor nor medical professional of any kind: nothing presented in the preceeding story should be viewed as medical advice! This story is a work of fiction - yet the possibilities presented in it are real. If you are an adult and have never had the chicken pox, please consider speaking to a medical professional about the benefits and dangers of getting vaccinated.

Thank you kindly for reading. :-)