Author's Note: What happened to Merri…?

CAVEAT: I fudged things a little, medical-wise. (But this is just fiction.) See Follow-up for details.

Merri Brody felt like hell, but she was so damned relieved to see her partner's handsome face that she practically leapt out of the hospital bed, throwing herself at him. As her arms wrapped about him she felt him stiffen in her embrace.

His back. A thought told her. But that wasn't quite right. God, she couldn't seem to think straight, remember clearly.

Rather than hug her in return, her friend carefully untangled himself from her and gently pushed her back to lying down on the narrow cot. (Not a difficult feat considering she felt like she had all the strength of a weak kitten.) She couldn't help but feel hurt by the cold behavior, but she was too be... free... and safe? She shook her head. She felt so hazy.

Concussion. A thought told her.

"M' happy ta see ya too, Brody." She tried to focus better on Chris LaSalle. It was so hard to concentrate. He looked healthy. And relieved, she supposed, but not like she felt... free... and safe?

Pride was here, too, standing beside Chris, looking down at her with lines of worry and a little relief etched into his face.

"Well, did we get him?" Her voice was a raspy croak. And the two men gave her a bewildered look, so she frowned, adding, "Beauchamps."

LaSalle's blue eyes went wide. Pride's brow furrowed. He opened his mouth as if about to say something when a nurse bustled into the room and genially pushed the two men out of the way to begin checking Merri's vitals.

"Good to see you awake, Agent Brody," the nurse said. Did she know the woman? She seemed familiar, yet Merri couldn't focus her eyes enough to read her nametag.

Pauline. A thought told her.

"Looking good," the nurse said, patting her on the arm and giving her a sunny smile. "I'm going to go fetch the doctor, okay?"

Her fellow agents crowded back in around her bedside, studying her with worried and bemused expressions.

"You were, sayin' somethin' about, uh- Beauchamps?" Pride asked in his usual neutral tone and strange broken cadence.

"Did you get him?" Merri asked, feeling more confused than she ever had in her life.

"How do you know about 'im?" She shook her head. It made the room spin enough that she had to lay back into the pillow to still herself and the world.

Beauchamps tortured us, A thought told her.

"He's the one responsible for this," she said, her voice cracking so that LaSalle hastily poured her a cup of water and held it to her lips. She placed her hands on the plastic cup, but he didn't let go. And was right not to trust her weak fingers to hold it. She took a few sips and gave him a grateful smile before he turned to set it back on the side table, his ears turning a little pink despite his otherwise rather detached behavior. For some reason she felt the significant urge to wrap her arms around him and soothe him.

Pride shook his head, looking as confused by what she was saying as she felt by both of the men's responses. But before she could press them for an explanation, the nurse returned, towing a thin middle-aged woman with pretty if oddly sharp looking features. She was obviously the doctor, even though Merri couldn't quite focus enough to read the name embroidered on her white lab coat. But she had a stethoscope draped around her neck and an air of authority that sent the two seasoned federal agents skittering out of her way like field mice.

"How are you feeling, Merri?" she asked, leaning over her and beginning to examine her head to toe. The pen light she shined into her eyes was a sharp stabbing pain directly to her poor abused brain, but the doctor didn't appear to find anything wrong with her pupilary response.

"Um... confused," Merri said as the woman picked up her right hand and checked the ugly looking bruise on the back.

Stabbed, a thought told her. Merri frowned, wrinkling her nose.

"That's perfectly normal after what you've gone through," the doctor said, giving her a perfect bedside manner smile. She turned to Pride and LaSalle, who stood off to the side, watching the proceedings with expressions of mingled worry and relief still plastered on their faces. "I'll have to ask you both to leave while I finish my examination of Agent Brody."

After they left, the doctor asked her turn over on her side so she could check her back. She noted her vitals, drew some blood that the nurse whisked away, and then settled down on the edge of Merri's hospital bed.

"What do you remember?" she asked.

"I'm... I'm not sure anymore," Merri said, trying to grasp at memories that seemed as slippery as soap. No, worse than soap. Bits of shampoo floating in water. Impossible to grab. Only with keen patience, could one scoop them up in both hands. And still, parts were lost.

"You developed a bad infection in the laceration to your thigh. You're partner brought you in after you passed out while making an arrest."

Merri nodded. She remembered blacking out in the parking lot. But hadn't she woken up somewhere else? Not in the hospital. It was like an intense dream. Or her real memories were so vague that they all seemed equally valid. It was hard to pick out one over the other and hang onto it as reality.

"That was six days ago."

What?! She had no memory of six whole days. Okay. She had a memory. But it was too freaky to be real, wasn't it? It seemed so real. She remembered the heat of the unforgiving sun, the stab of pain in her hand, her back on fire with agony, the feel of LaSalle's hands on her arms, the musky male scent of his skin as he lay beside her in bed.

"Was I in a coma?" It seemed the obvious conclusion, since she had no recollection of being hospitalized for the past week.

"Not as such." The doctor gave her a sympathetic smile. As if the woman had ever lost a week's time because she'd been so sick with-

"What was it, anyway?" Merri asked.

"You developed a severe Staph infection. Multi-drug resistant. It moved into your blood stream. Your fever was dangerously high much of the time, which was why you were so out of it."

"Multi-drug resistant?" That was the scariest sort of medical pronouncement in Merri's opinion. Something potentially untreatable.

Sensing her alarm, the doctor patted her knee. "It took us several days to find an effective antibiotic cocktail, during which you suffered a blown IV line..." (that explained the bruise on the back of her hand) "...and an allergic reaction to one of the antibiotics. The rash on your back seems to have cleared up, however. And the last three blood tests have shown a steady reduction in the infection."

The woman squeezed her knee. "It was close a couple times there, but your friends said you' were a fighter. And they were right."

Merri took back any ill-will she felt towards the doctor. She obviously cared about her patients.

"What's the prognosis, then?" Merri asked. She'd have been more nervous if her emotional self hadn't started shutting things down to protect her frantic brain. Everything was a complete mess. She'd never been so disoriented in her life. Not even after Emily died.

"You'll probably be released tomorrow or the next day, if the infection continues to show signs of clearing up," the doctor said, getting to her feet and assuming a more professional tone. "But you'll have to continue the course of antibiotics for another five weeks. A nurse will show you how to give yourself the injections and get you set up."

Ugh. Great.

Suddenly, she took Merri's hand in her own, warmer gloved one, looking all soft again.

"And I promise you the doctor who improperly treated your initial injury will be facing a review board. This was a dangerous and likely avoidable mistake. I'm sorry you had to go through this."

"Thank you," Merri said, unsure of what else to say. Maybe her mind had created some sort of bizarre escapist fantasy, but she apparently hadn't been able to truly flee the pain her body had suffered. Her feverish mind had tried to interpret her physical agony in the most bizarre way. (Maybe she read too many gothic novels... what the hell?!)

"Shall I send your friends back in?" she asked. And Merri nodded. She wanted to see them. She wanted the normalcy of discussing a case with them, or what Laurel was up to, Sebastian's latest conspiracy theory, whether Loretta finally took back that fawning (too much for the medical examiner's tastes) boyfriend of hers.

Honestly, she wanted to see LaSalle again. Fever-dream or no, the anxiety over his well-being felt real and profound. She wasn't one for premonitions or such supernatural bullshit. But being a law enforcement officer for nearly half her life had made her a firm believer in 'gut feelings'. And she had a concern for her partner and friend that ran bone deep.

When they came back in, Pride was wearing his serious face, almost-but-not-quite 'interrogator' in somberness. LaSalle was looking sheepish. (And god help her, as boyishly handsome as ever.) Whatever her mind had done to her, why had it felt the need to torture her friend, too, was beyond her. Maybe she held some deep-seeded subconscious malice towards the poor guy. Or maybe she was trying to warn herself, her gut telling her he needed protection, help, saving.

"What do you know about Beauchamps?" Pride asked. Merri shifted in the uncomfortable hospital bed... The fabric of the gown and the sheets were scratchy against her grimy skin. As soon as she could stand up on her own (she felt like that might not be a possibility for at least another half a day), she was going to take a shower and wash away the fever sweat.

"Just... Just a name from my fever-dream," she said, sounding not at all certain. God, the vestiges of those memories seemed just as real, maybe more, than the reality of lying in a hospital, weak and uncomfortable and feeling... feeling completely out-of-balance, like she might burst into tears or laughter or scream. Or throw herself at her partner who wasn't quite looking at her, almost as if Pride had scolded him. She wasn't sure where the desire to hug the younger man had come from, but god, it was ridiculously urgent.

"I know things, are a little... Fuzzy for you right, now." Pride's strict expression softened, and the concern returned to his warm eyes. Sometimes, Merri could swear the man was born in 'father mode'. She couldn't see him ever being any other sort of man than one who gathered up a brood and watched over them. She believed the term was 'fiercely protective'.

"But you're sure, you've never heard, that name before your, uh, fever-dreams?"

Merri chewed her lip, laying her head back against the equally-scratchy (and lumpy) pillow. She tried to focus her stupid scattered brain. No. Beauchamps was a villain. That's all she knew.

"No," she said, opening her eyes again, watching as Pride turned to LaSalle with a confused look. "What's going on?"

The older man nudged his younger friend, who took a step forward, casting his eyes at his feet and shifting his weight from one side to the other. Merri was sure she'd never seen the confident agent look so timid. He even mumbled when he spoke.

"Ya prob'ly know the name 'cause I was talkin' ta ya 'bout the case when ya were outta it," he said.

That made sense, she supposed. Especially if, "This Beauchamps is your suspect?"

"We think he's the one behind Sidney's frame-up an' murder." The timidity left LaSalle's demeanor as the conversation switched to more comfortable topics than his feelings, the fact that he'd cared enough about his partner to not only sit with her, but also talk to her while she was unconscious. "He's a sociopath if ya ask me."

Damn. Her friend probably would've never thought his telling her about his investigation would fuel the most disturbing dreams to accompany her fever aches and pains.

"Don't care 'bout nothin' but himself." LaSalle had become all worked up now. "Playin' wi' people's lives as if they were games fer his amusement. Or insignificant, li'l-"

"Butterflies?" Merri suggested and her partner grew silent once more. She wondered if it was a turn of phrase he'd used before, when she was sleeping and he was venting about the case.

"We best leave Brody to get her rest," Pride said, putting a hand on his young friend's shoulder. "We'll catch her up when she's back on her feet."

He nodded to Merri and she gave him a confident smile, which was a complete fiction. Confident was the last thing she felt. Out of place, weak, befuddled, anxious... All described her current state far better than 'cool and collected federal agent'. But that's what her boys needed to see in order to leave her side and get back to work. So that's what she gave them. She slumped back into the hospital bed when the door closed behind them.

Well, didn't quite close, for the nurse came bustling back in, carrying a tray of -oh, lovely, why don't they just poison her- hospital food. But she supposed it would be the first step in getting her strength back, towards feeling more herself.

"Got you some dinner, Agent Brody," the nurse announced, setting up a tray in front of Merri and helping her sit up. But she didn't leave. Instead she settled in, making Merri feel like an infant as the friendly health care professional took up the spoon to feed her. Unfortunately, the woman's assumption that the patient didn't have the strength to lift her hand to her mouth more than once was correct.

It was still embarrassing.

But not as embarrassing as the conversation the nurse started up.

"I'm surprised your boyfriend there left so soon."

"What?" Merri frowned. "I don't have a boyfriend."

She couldn't mean LaSalle or Pride.

"The younger one with the intense eyes and the little boy grin."

Okay. She definitely meant LaSalle. Merri shook her head.

"He's just my partner," she said, before taking the spoonful of cherry jell-o the nurse offered her. It was sweet and cool and although she'd never been one for gelatin products, it was heaven as she swallowed and it slid down her dry throat.

"Does he know that?" said Nurse- It was 'Pauline', now that Merri was able to focus enough to read her nametag. The woman was grinning. Obviously, she found the federal agents amusing. Well, at least the charming Bama-Born one. "Because he never left your side, except when we made him."

Merri felt her eyes grow wide. She knew Chris LaSalle was loyal, soft-hearted and a good friend. But the nurse had to be exaggerating.

"Well, he didn't come in for the first couple of days, after dropping you off and looking all kinds of frantic."

There. Exaggeration. The woman had simply read too many romance novels.

"But once he showed up, he practically had to be dragged away." Nurse Pauline seemed to get a little misty-eyed. Definitely a hopeless romantic. "He sat by your bed, holding your hand and talking to you softly in that charming accent of his."

Charming. That was one word for it. (Okay, so Merri did find his ridiculous backwoods Southern accent adorable, and a little sexy.)

Nurse Pauline lowered her voice, whispering as if she was imparting some secret or scandalous information as she offered Merri the last spoonful of jell-o.

"I had to kick him out of your bed last night."

What?! Merri's eyes practically popped out of her head. This woman was a liar. Because Chris LaSalle's deeply ingrained gentlemanly manners (perhaps beaten into him by his mother yielding a wooden spoon) would never permit him to do such a thing as crawl into her hospital bed without her explicit permission. (Or even then.)

"God's Honest Truth." Nurse Pauline crossed her heart. And then gave Merri a rather lascivious wink, that made her blush. "He was all curled up against your side, sound asleep. After watching him spend the last few nights in that uncomfortable chair, I didn't really want to wake him. But rules are rules."

Nah. Couldn't have happened. Only...

Warmth. The feel of a calloused hand on her bare arm as she slept. A familiar musky male scent. LaSalle.

Merri laid back into the pillows, closing her eyes as Nurse Pauline tidied up the remains of her dinner.

She felt more confused than ever.

A/N: I know, I know. I went with the 'It's all a dream' cop out. But it just worked so well. And the Gothic portion of this fic was rather incongruous with the beginning. So bringing it back to that tone for the end, but hopefully maintaining some sort of bond between Brody and LaSalle.

A/N2: Merri would've been pretty much quarantined had she developed a severe MRSA infection (LaSalle might've been allowed to see her, but not touch her until the infection was under control. And there would be epic amounts of hand sanitizing in and out of her room). But that's not conducive to my plot/bonding schemes, so… Sorry for the inaccuracy. ;-)