Life has a terrible habit of getting in the way. At least, my life does. For those of you still reading, thank you and bless you. I will do my level best to be much more timely with updates. A lot is going to happen in this story before we reach the end. Hopefully you'll find this next chapter worth the overly long wait you had to endure for it. Thank you for your patience, and for reading.

The first thing Mac was aware of was the pain in his right leg. It struck him as odd because the last pain he remembered was the crushing pain in his chest.

The second thing Mac was aware of was all of the tubes protruding from his body. He had a tube to temporarily help with his breathing, IVs in the backs of both of his hands, an arterial line to measure his blood pressure, and when he shifted ever so slightly, he realized he also had a catheter. The biggest tube was the one protruding from his chest, and when Mac saw the chest tube, he realized he had had heart surgery.

He felt very tired and weak, and wondered how long ago his surgery had been. The lights in his hospital room were dim, and the blinds and curtains on the windows were closed. He could hear the steady, constant beeping of the heart monitor, but he was too drained to turn his head to look at it. He didn't want to see a bunch of machines right now, anyway. He wanted to see Rachel.

The last sight he remembered was the wild look in Rachel's eyes, the fear and panic that she was battling as he told her to get help because he was having a heart attack. The last words he had heard her say were her telling someone to call an ambulance because he was having a heart attack. He didn't remember anything after that...and now here he was, lying in a hospital bed with miles of tubes and wires all over his body.

Marshaling what little strength he had, Mac turned his head very slowly to his left (since all of the machines and the IV stand were on his right), and the first thing he saw was Rachel, lying on her side atop a hospital bed facing him, sound asleep. The side rails on the left side of Mac's hospital bed and the right side of Rachel's hospital bed were down, so the beds were pushed up against each other. Rachel's left hand was resting on his bed, in fact, mere centimeters from his arm, as if her hand had been resting on his arm and had fallen to the bed when she sank into deep sleep. Rachel looked exhausted and tense, even in sleep. She was curled into an almost fetal position, her knees bent, and it couldn't be very comfortable. Rachel normally slept all stretched out; Mac had long since gotten used to her legs tangling with his in bed, and at least one of her arms being thrown over him for most of the night.

Mac was still watching Rachel when he heard the door to his room open, but he didn't take his eyes from his wife's not-so-restfully sleeping form. Then Matthew appeared in his line of sight, looking disheveled and dead on his feet. Mac watched as Matthew gently covered Rachel with a light blanket and looked at her worriedly. Then Matthew looked at Mac, and, upon seeing his eyes were open, Matthew said, "Dad?"

It hit Mac that Matthew had just referred to him as "Dad" for the first time in almost three years. With the breathing tube in, he couldn't speak. Matthew swiped at his teary eyes before carefully reaching out to grab Mac's hand and squeeze it. Choking back a sob, Matthew said, "I'll get the doctor. Stay awake, okay?" Then Matthew turned and rushed out of the room, and Mac could hear him yelling in the hall for a doctor, exclaiming that he (Mac) was awake, and Mac couldn't be sure, but he thought he heard Jamie's voice, and Sandy's too...and was that Nancy?

The door to the room swished open again, and a white-coated doctor only slightly younger than Mac entered. "Mr. Cory," he greeted Mac. "It's good to have you back with us." Mac stared up at the doctor, lying still as the doctor examined him. "I think we can put you on regular oxygen now, if you'd like that breathing tube removed." Mac started to raise one arm to let the doctor know that yes, he most certainly did want the breathing tube removed. The doctor efficiently removed the breathing tube, but before he could put the oxygen tube in Mac's nose, Mac coughed violently.

The second Mac coughed, Rachel instantly awoke, jackknifing into a sitting position, pushing her tousled hair out of her eyes, and ignoring everyone else in the room to look at her beloved husband. "Mac?" she asked, half fearfully, half hopefully.

Mac carefully turned his head to look at Rachel, seeing the exhaustion etched deeply into her features, the way the skin under her eyes was dark, the fatigue her eyes couldn't conceal. He had finished coughing now and drew an unsteady breath, which made his chest hurt. When his face crumpled in pain, Rachel grabbed hold of his hand in both of hers and forcefully commanded the doctor, "He's clearly in pain right now! Do something!"

The doctor secured a nasal cannula oxygen mask to Mac's face, making it easier for him to breathe, and then placed the control to a morphine dispenser standing next to Mac's hospital bed in the patient's hand. "Push the button when you need medicine, Mr. Cory," he directed. Mac jabbed the button with his thumb as hard as he could, and only seconds later, the pain in his chest eased considerably, thanks to the flow of morphine into his veins. "Better?" the doctor asked.

"Much," Mac rasped. He tried to lick his dry lips. "Water?" he asked.

Matthew grabbed the tan plastic pitcher of ice water from the tray table near Mac's bed and the matching tan plastic cup with a flexible straw sticking out of it. He poured ice water into the cup, sloshing a good deal of the pitcher's contents across the top of the tray table in the process, and then held the cup and straw to Mac's lips. Mac drank as deeply as he dared, and water had never tasted so good to him.

The morphine was starting take effect by now, and Mac let his gaze wander from Nancy, who was smiling encouragingly at him, to Matthew, who had tears streaming down his face and was not the least bit ashamed of that fact, to Jamie, who looked more relieved than Mac could ever remember seeing anyone look, to Sandy, who looked as if the weight of his world had been lifted from his shoulders, and at last, to Rachel, belatedly realizing that she was stroking his hair as she looked at him with a jumbled mixture of love, relief, exhaustion, and uncertainty. "Rest now, darling," she said softly before pressing a kiss to the center of his forehead. "We'll all be here when you wake up. The only thing that matters it that you're going to be all right."

The last thing Mac heard before sleep claimed him was the doctor echoing Rachel's assessment. "You certainly are, Mr. Cory. You're a very lucky man."

Mac wasn't sure what time it was when he next awoke, but the pain had lessened considerably. It wasn't gone, but the combination of morphine, sleep, and time had worked some kind of least until he tried to take a deep breath, at which point he couldn't stop the groan of pain that escaped from his lips. He silently cursed himself, expecting Rachel to once more spring up like a jack-in-the-box at the sound of his discomfort, but a look to his side revealed Rachel in her hospital bed sound asleep, sprawled out on the bed on her stomach, one leg sticking out from beneath the covers to reveal a bare foot, her breathing deep and even, her arm outstretched toward him and her fingertips resting against his arm, the barest touch, the physical connection both strong and fragile at the same time.

Looking around the room, he saw Jamie and Sandy asleep in chairs pushed back against the furthest wall, out of the way of the medical personnel. Sandy's head was tipped back and resting against the wall, and he slept sitting up, while Jamie was slumped sideways in his chair, his head pillowed on one arm. Mac frowned, momentarily wondering where Matthew and Nancy were. Had they retreated to a nearby hotel? His question was answered when the door to his room opened and Nancy entered, looking down as she stepped over Matthew's prone, sleeping form a few feet inside the door, on the floor next to Mac's hospital bed but far enough away not to disturb the plethora of machines measuring Mac's vital signs. Nancy picked up the chart from the foot of Mac's bed and began to read it.

"Occupational hazard?" Mac asked in a stage whisper.

Nancy started, replacing the chart before sitting down on the edge of Mac's bed. "Yes," she admitted without a trace of embarrassment. "You gave us all a big scare there, Mac. But it's looking good now." She looked up at the machines, deciphering their medical code, and gave a single nod of satisfaction. "Yes, it's looking very good," she said, almost to herself. She focused her full attention on Mac now. "It won't be an easy recovery, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it's you."

"How in the world did you get Rachel and the boys to go to sleep?" Mac asked then.

"The boys all crashed on their own. The adrenaline wore off, and Jamie and Matt jumped one time zone in coming here, and Sandy jumped three time zones," Nancy replied. "Rachel was a different story. My sister is stubborn as the day is long."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," Mac deadpanned. Nancy laughed quietly, knowing that Mac knew better than anyone, with the possible exception of Ada, exactly how stubborn Rachel could be.

"She fought sleep tooth and nail," Nancy continued when she had recovered herself. "In the end, it took slipping a sleeping pill into her mashed potatoes to get her to conk out." Mac opened his mouth to protest but Nancy held up a hand, traffic-cop style. "Before you say anything, it's an over-the-counter sleeping pill, and it was Mom's idea. I just carried it out."

Mac looked at Rachel, sleeping soundly and peacefully in the bed next to him. "She was so scared," he said softly, regretfully.

"We all were," Nancy replied, "but I agree, none of us were more terrified than Rachel." Nancy shifted slightly on the bed. "While we have this time alone, I had something I wanted to discuss with you, Mac, seeing as how you're the man of the house."

Mac looked at Nancy, slightly puzzled, and it had nothing to do with the morphine or the leftover grogginess from his own sleep. "What's that?" he asked.

Nancy, being Rachel's sister and Ada's daughter, was not one to beat around the bush. She looked Mac straight in the eyes and said, "Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and even some praying. Before tonight, I mean, about my life and my situation."

"Are you in some kind of trouble?" Mac asked earnestly.

"Oh no. No. Nothing like that," Nancy hastily reassured her brother-in-law. "But we both know that I only left Bay City in the first place because the Sin Stalker was after me and I had to leave for my own safety. But Alan Glaser is safely behind bars-"

"And he'll be staying that way for the rest of his life," Mac interrupted, beginning to get an inkling of what Nancy was driving at here.

"I know that I was Rachel's pain in the butt kid sister as a teenager and college student," Nancy continued, "and yeah, I wanted to get out there and see the world and make my own way and build my own life. And I did that. I finished school in Arizona, I got a good job at a great hospital, and I worked my way up to the position of head cardiac nurse." She cracked a wry smile. "But without my family, without my friends, it was all kind of hollow, you know? I'm friendly with most of the people I work with, but that whole boss thing makes it difficult to socialize. Not that I'm a tyrant as a boss or anything, but you can't complain about your job or your boss when you're hanging out with your boss after work."

Nancy smoothed a wrinkled patch of blanket beside her before continuing. "So little Nancy faced the big, bad world and did all right for herself...but she also grew up. I can't promise that I won't still be the pain in the butt kid sister from time to time, but I don't really have anything holding me in Phoenix. I've been looking, praying for some sign of what I'm supposed to do and where I'm supposed to go from here, because the one thing I was sure of was that I didn't want to stay in Phoenix. Then Mom called last night with the news about you, and I was on the first plane here.

"Like I said, you're the man of the house, Mac. If I mentioned this to Mom or Rachel first, they'd just talk you into it or make you go along with it because they'd both say 'yes' without even having to think about it, and I don't want that. I want it to be okay with you first and foremost."

"Nancy, if you're trying to ask me if you can move back home, move into the mansion with us, of course you can. It's your home, just as much as it's mine and Rachel's and Ada's and all of the children's, even though the only one currently living there is Matthew. There will always be a place for you there," Mac assured her.

Nancy smiled. "Thank you, Mac. I'm not saying I'll stay forever, but definitely for a while. And hey, you get a live-in cardiac nurse in the bargain."

"And a doctor in the family in Jamie. And Rachel and Ada. I'm in good hands," Mac replied.

Nancy carefully hugged Mac then. "What was that for?" he asked when she released him.

"Just because you're you, and I'm really happy for all of our sakes that you're still with us," Nancy said.

Mac looked over at Rachel sleeping next to him. "I have a lot left to do yet, and a very important promise to keep," he said as he watched Rachel sleeping and recalled his promise to her before they wheeled him into surgery, his promise that he would be with her for another 25 years. "I'm not planning on going anywhere for a very long time."