Disclaimer : The characters do not belong to me. They are simply being borrowed for the purposes of this story and will be returned relatively unharmed afterward!


DESPERATE HOURS

By Cass


It had been a hell of a week.
As Mark Sloan finally finished up a 12-hour shift that had somehow managed to stretch into 20 hours, he suppressed a groan.
Everything ached. He would definitely sleep tonight.
Pressing his fingers into his lower back, he forced himself to Straighten up. He seemed to have spent the entire day and half the night hunched over and his spine was definitely protesting the abuse.
But he was one of the lucky ones.
Some of his younger colleagues had not been home for more than 36 hours. He had noticed them slowly turning into grey-faced zombies, their hooded eyes kept open only by sheer willpower and frequent ingestions of coffee. He didn't know how they had all managed to function so well during the onslaught of casualties they had had today. But they had and he was proud of them all.

His backache had eased somewhat by the time he exited the trauma room, where he had left his last patient with the nursing staff.
As he ambled down the hall toward the doctor's room, to get some coffee so that he would be awake enough to drive himself home, his thoughts had already turned to sleep and the large, comfortable bed he had waiting for him at home. Entering the doctor's lounge a few moments later, an affectionate smile transformed his haggard face.

One particular doctor had put in some impossible hours that week. Mark didn't think he'd seen the inside of his apartment during the whole of that time. He had run himself ragged, setting broken limbs, removing bullets, treating copiously vomiting patients and dealing with hysterical relatives. And he had done it all with a gentle smile and a kind word for everyone.
Mark had once told him he was the 'best doctor in the ER' and he had often given thanks to whatever lucky star had brought Jesse Travis to Community General. He was a consummate physician and a brilliant surgeon. He cared about people and it showed. He was incapable of passing by if someone was hurt or needed assistance. That trait had got him into trouble in the past - mostly when he had been taken advantage of. But it had not stopped him. Instead, it had only strengthened his determination to do all he could for everyone he could.
But there was another side to Jesse Travis. He may take his role as a doctor and surgeon very seriously, but that didn't mean he didn't know how to have fun. In spades. There was a large part of the young doctor which was still a little boy at heart. He looked far younger than his years and often played up to it. He simply couldn't help himself.
Mischief dwelled within him and every so often it needed to be set free. Then that impish grin would make its appearance and the blue eyes would dance with merriment. He was outgoing, friendly, lively and often playful. It was something which only endeared him more to his friends.

But even the most kinetic of doctors lost their energy eventually. Especially when it was stretched to the limit the way theirs had been over the past few days. And that was what had happened.
Mark shook his head in fond exasperation as he studied the young man. Jesse was curled up on one of the couches. One arm was flung over the armrest, whilst the other was dangling off the edge. His face was partially buried in the cushion and, every so often, little sounds of pure contentment emerged from between parted lips.
He looked so comfortable, lying there and Mark was loathe to wake him. But his young colleague shouldn't be here. He should be home, tucked up in his own bed. In fact, after his coffee, Mark had intended seeking out the other man so that he could tell him to take some much deserved time off.
He sighed heavily. Then, after pausing only to pour himself a cup of hot coffee, made his way softly across the room and crouched beside the sleeping doctor.
"Jesse."
No response.
"Jesse, wake up."
A slight snuffling noise ensued as the young man turned his face further into the cushion, threatening to cut off his own air intake. Mark couldn't resist a wry grin at the sight.
"Jesse! Wake up!"
This time his words were accompanied by a slight shake to one slender shoulder.
"Mmfff?? Wha …?"
Bleary blue eyes blinked owlishly at him from beneath blond hair and the expressive face creased in a frown. The bewildered expression faded and was replaced by a dazed smile as he recognised his visitor.
"Um … hi, Mark."
"Hi, yourself," Mark replied, warmly. "Jesse, you need to go home."
The puzzled expression returned. "Why?" Jesse asked, plaintively. "M' comfortable here."
The older doctor shook his head. "No, Jess," he said, firmly. "You have the next four days off and you're not spending them in the hospital, regardless of how comfortable the couch is."
Jesse frowned. "Four days?" he echoed. "B … but I can't take four days off. What if the ER gets over-run again …?"
"Then we'll just have to muddle through without you," interjected Mark, dryly. "Jess, you've been on your feet for the last 72 hours. You need to have some time off - I can't have my best doctor collapsing on the job. It would be bad for my reputation."
The younger man grinned in response to the light teasing. Then he reluctantly levered himself up - with a little help from Mark who grabbed his left arm and hauled him upright. "Man," he exclaimed, softly, dropping his head into his hands. "I am totally wiped out."
"I shall refrain from saying 'I told you so'," remarked his friend, wryly from his seat beside him. "Now will you go home?"
Jesse gave him a rueful look. "Okay," he acquiesced. "But I'm gonna need some coffee first."
The older man grimaced as he took a sip from his own cup. "I'd be very careful if I were you," he warned. "This stuff is strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth."
A huge grin lit up the tired features. "Just the way I like it!" Jesse said.

Half an hour and two cups of stewed coffee later, Jesse was ready to make the journey home. Mark had been right, he reflected as he entered the elevator and leaned against the wall, stifling a yawn. He was exhausted.
He couldn't recall another week when he had worked so hard - not since he had been a resident. The casualties had just kept on coming. Endless streams of them. And with two doctors off with the flu, extra pressure had been placed on all the remaining staff.
Jesse had felt honour bound, as attending physician in the ER, to ensure that he was on hand at all hours, with the result that he had been on duty for close to three days. He had caught a catnap here and there in the on-call room, in the doctor's lounge and once, embarrassingly, in the locker room, where he had made the mistake of slumping tiredly onto the bench to 'rest his eyes' a moment. He had awoken two hours later with a start when he had hit the floor with a thump. Fortunately there hadn't been too far to fall, but he was still relieved that no-one had witnessed it. He would never have lived it down.
As he got into his car, leaning back against the warm leather seat for a moment, he reflected how nice it would be to get home, have a long, cool drink to remove the aftertaste of that bitter brew in the lounge and then crawl into his bed. The image lasted all of one second before he realised, with a groan, that his refrigerator was empty - as were his cupboards. That meant a stop at a store on his way home.
Damn.
Oh well. It would only take a few minutes to get all the things he needed. And the sooner he set off, the sooner he would be done.

The store was close to his apartment. Open 24 hours, at this time of night it was virtually deserted. Only the owner and a couple of other late night customers were in evidence.
Jesse ambled along the aisle, searching for the few items he needed before he could get home to partake of some much needed rest. He was having a little difficulty focussing on the products on the shelves and was forced to admit to himself that maybe he had pushed the envelope a little too far this time. Good thing Mark wasn't there to see him squinting at the labels as they wavered in front of him. He would only say 'told you so'!

The explosion happened without warning. One minute Jesse was placing a carton of orange in his grocery basket, the next he was being hurled into the air. As the world erupted around him in flames and debris, Jesse had time for one moment of confused horror. Then he impacted with something solid and unyielding and agony speared through his body. He tried to scream, but all the breath had been sucked from his lungs and as he careened toward unconsciousness his last thoughts were of the friends he was going to leave behind.

He awoke to the sounds of someone coughing. His head was pounding and fire arced down his left side. He hitched in a breath as the pain intensified, gasping for breath when it crescendoed. Slowly, it diminished to a pulsing ache which left him shuddering in its aftermath. The rancid stench of burned flesh assaulted his nostrils, together with the acrid smell of smoke. With immense difficulty, he prised open his eyes and tried to get his bearings.
It was pitch black - except for the flames which licked hungrily just a few yards away from where he lay. Their flickering light enabled him to peer around, trying to figure out what had happened and where he was.
It was like looking into the maw of hell.
The store was no longer recognisable as a building.
Steel beams had buckled under the force of the blast. Brick and wood had been blown out. Shards of glass from the windows, exploded outwards onto the sidewalk, glittered in the raging fire. Grocery products and the shelves which had held them were scattered everywhere, some burnt beyond recognition, others split apart, their contents spilled across the floor. A few items were bizarrely intact, dependent upon their proximity to the explosion.
In the distance could be heard the sound of sirens. But Jesse ignored them. Instead, he concentrated on trying to lever himself upright. There had been other people in the store. The owner, a mother and her baby and an old man with whom he was on nodding terms. He had to find them.
Getting himself off the detritus-ridden floor was an exercise in agony. New pain flared down his side as he struggled to his feet. Dizziness assaulted him and he swayed dangerously, his hand flailing outward to hit the wall, giving himself a precarious sense of balance.
After a few moments, in which he inhaled more of the smoke, which triggered a coughing fit that left him fighting for oxygen, he slowly took his hand away from the wall. He swayed again but remained upright. Tears were streaming down his blackened cheeks from both the smoke and the effort of remaining conscious, but he stumbled determinedly through the debris, seeking out any signs of life.
The first person he found was beyond help. The body was barely recognisable as a human. Only the form gave it away. Burnt to a crisp, its arms held out in front as if to shield itself from the blast, he realised that this was Mr Woo, the owner. He bit down a surge of nausea. He was accustomed to dealing with burns; had seen dead bodies in the path lab. But it was different when it was someone you knew. Someone with whom you had had conversations about the weather, the LA Raiders or the cost of living.
He turned away, mentally apologising to the man for his inability to help him.
The next body was not even in one piece. He found a burned, severed arm first. Then part of a leg. The torso was partially buried beneath a steel beam.
He was a doctor. He was used to this.
He didn't manage to convince himself.
Nausea overcame him.

Straightening up some moments later, wiping his mouth on his tattered coat sleeve, he thought he heard a sound.
He stood for some moments, concentrating, shutting out the other noises - the cacophony of voices from beyond the wreckage, the sirens which were now close enough to be on top of them and the fire crackling away at the periphery of his vision.
There it was again.
"Hello?" he cried, hoarsely. "Is anyone there?"
There it was again. A weak sigh. Moving forward cautiously, he peered into the wreckage, trying to find the source of the noise. He was getting closer to the fire. Heat blasted at him and the flames were moving ever nearer, devouring everything in their path. He clenched his jaw. He had to find the other person - it must be the young mom he had seen earlier. She and her baby must be somewhere under the ruins - he just couldn't see her.
"Can you hear me?" he cried again, his voice husky with the effects of the smoke and his own injuries. "Can you tell where you are?"
Then he saw it. A hand, reaching out from amidst the rubble. He felt his heart quicken in response. Darting forward, he grasped the flailing fingers and held on tightly. "It's okay," he soothed her. "It's okay, I'm here. I'm gonna help you."
"M … my baby …" came the weak voice. "Wh … where is she …?"
He swallowed. He could hear no other sound. No baby crying, no whimpering, nothing. "I … I don't know," he said. "But I'm sure she's fine. I'll get you out of there and then we'll find her together, okay?"
"No … find … her …" The woman's voice was getting fainter. Surreptitiously, he moved his fingers down to her wrist, feeling the weak thrum of her pulse. It was fading fast.
"I'm gonna get you out," he said, decisively, ignoring her protest. She could die within minutes. He was not going to let that happen. He couldn't let that happen. Not if he could do anything to prevent it. "I'm just gonna let go of your hand for a minute, okay?" he said, in a soothing voice. "I'm gonna see if I can move all this stuff off you …"
"No!" she cried feebly. "No! You … get my baby! You … save her! You …"
"Hello?" he cried as her voice suddenly stopped in mid sentence. There was no response. "Oh god …" He felt her wrist again. Nothing. She was gone. He had been talking to her and now she was gone.
He felt the weight of anguish settle over him, crushing him in its insidious embrace. He had failed.

The torrent of water took him completely by surprise. Once again his body was flung into the air, and he uttered a startled yelp as he was tossed backwards by the deluge. He came to a halt against something hard, gasping as his injured side bore the brunt of the impact. He curled up in agony, rocking to and fro as it worsened and threatened his senses.
He still had to find the baby. He had told the young mother that he would find her baby. He had failed to save her, but he could still save the child.
If only he could move.

As he lay inside the demolished store, wracked with guilt and pain, outside, the firemen continued to aim their hoses toward the fire. The first surge of water had hit it dead on, going straight to its heart and dealing it a mortal blow. The blaze had been badly weakened and although it tried to re-ignite, licking desperately at the mass of fuel in front of it, it was a battle that was already lost.
Within minutes, it was all but extinguished, its ferocity quelled by its greatest enemy. A few flames still remained to be doused, but the beast had been beaten back and the fire crews were ready to begin their task of searching through the rubble for survivors - not that they expected to find any.
As they tried to find a way in through the debris, however, something shifted. There was a warning yell, and everyone ran for cover as part of the roof started to cave in. One of the remaining supports, buckled by the intense heat which the explosion had generated, had finally given way under the pressure and, with a resounding boom, it collapsed, the roof following it.
Running for cover, those outside were safe.
Jesse was not so lucky.
The water from the hoses had sent him careening across the floor directly underneath the fatally flawed support. As it gave way, the scream from the tortured metal reverberated through his head, but he didn't have time to register exactly what it was, nor where it was coming from. The next moment, he was buried as the beam and everything it had been supporting toppled onto him.

Amanda arrived at the scene of the explosion an hour after the roof collapse. Two bodies had been found and the Coroner's Office had been informed. As the ME on duty she was contacted immediately and had dropped everything to attend the incident. Jumping out of her Cherokee, she rubbed a tired hand across gritty eyes. It had been a long shift and she was eager to get home. Her needs would have to wait, however. There were bodies to process and her first duty was to them.
She recognised the area, of course. It was close to Jesse's apartment. The young man had gone home hours ago. He was probably tucked up in bed now, dead to the world. He probably hadn't even heard the explosion. She smiled, fondly as her thoughts turned to her friend. Jesse was exuberant, playful and had a smile that could put the sun to shame. He was also one of the most dedicated doctors she knew.
Over the last few days she had become increasingly concerned about the number of hours he had been putting in during their recent deluge of patients and had intended having a word with Mark about it. When she had encountered her old friend a little under two hours earlier, however, she had discovered that he had sent their colleague home already. Relieved that she hadn't had to take matters into her own hands, she had shared a cup of coffee with Mark before ensuring that he, too, went home. He had been looking almost as ragged around the edges as Jesse had.
She sighed heavily. Both her friends were home sleeping - deservedly so - and where was she? Investigating another potential crime scene when all she wanted to do was go home to her son. Oh well …
Intent on her job, she strode through the small car park toward the scene of devastation. Then she saw something that made her blood run cold.
Jesse's car.

Mark was slumbering soundly. After taking his leave of Amanda at the hospital, he had done one final round of his patients and then, finally, started home. The lateness of the hour had meant a relatively easy journey and he had encountered very little traffic. Thus he had walked through into the beach house not half an hour after leaving the hospital. Fifteen minutes later his head had hit the pillow and he had sunk into the mattress with a contented sigh.
The shrill sound of the telephone jerked him out of a pleasant dream and he fumbled for the instrument, missing it the first time to send his alarm clock tumbling to the floor.
Cursing mildly at the intrusion, he made an effort to wake up as he spoke into the receiver.
"Mark Sloan," he mumbled.
"Mark?!"
Amanda's frantic voice set alarm bells ringing and he was instantly alert, springing upwards in bed, a frown creasing his face. "Amanda? What is it?"
"Oh god, Mark …" Her voice broke on a sob and his heart rose into his throat. God, what had happened?
"Amanda, honey, please …"
"It … it's Jesse," she managed, finally. She was crying. "Mark, there was an explosion at the grocery store near his apartment. His car is outside. I called him at home and there's no answer. Mark … so far we've only found dead bodies."
He felt numb. "Have … have you identified any of them as … as Jesse?" he asked. Sickness roiled in his stomach as he posed the question, dreading the response.
"No," came the quiet reply. "But Mark …. "
"Could there be survivors?" It was a vain hope but it was all they had.
Silence for a moment, then, "I … I guess so … the store was all but destroyed. There are still parts of it that are inaccessible, where people could be trapped."
He was already out of bed, donning his dressing gown. "I'm coming down," he told her. "I'll be there soon. Have you … have you called Steve?"
"No," she said. Her voice was shaking badly. "I … you were the first person I called. I didn't want to. I knew you'd just got home and were in bed, but … "
"You were right to call," he assured her. "We need to be there. I'll call Steve. Just … think positive, honey. We have to assume he's still okay." Because the alternative is too awful to contemplate, he finished silently.

Mark contacted Steve at the precinct where he was just finishing up his own shift. Stunned at the news that his best friend had been present at the site of the explosion and that he was missing, the detective wasted no time in getting there. He and Mark consequently turned up at the same time.
They arrived at a scene of total devastation. Smoke and steam billowed from the ruined building; firehoses lay criss-crossed amidst the debris on the sidewalk in front of it and firemen and cops alike were doing their best to herd back the crowd of onlookers who had seemingly appeared from nowhere.
Steve felt nauseated as he watched his colleagues cordon off the area, pushing people back, ordering them to go home because there was nothing to see - advice which was totally ignored as the crowd gawked at the blackened shell of the grocery store. His best friend was in there, somewhere. Possibly dead. Yet these people looked upon it as some kind of spectator sport. It was sick. Impotent fury began to roil within him and he had to fight to retain his outward composure whilst inside, he was crying.
The building had been almost totally destroyed. No-one could have survived in there. The explosion had ripped through its innards, leaving it a twisted, smouldering mass of steel and brick. The front was gone, a gaping hole of blackened metal. The back had partially collapsed. Beams had buckled and fallen, bringing the roof down with them. Anyone underneath would surely have been crushed to death.
Steve shuddered, as his mind provided an unwelcome image of what the moments during the explosion must have been like. God, Jess …

It was dark.
That was Jesse's first conscious observation as he slowly woke up.
He was wet.
His clothes were completely sodden. They were sticking uncomfortably to his skin.
He was really cold.
He shivered minutely as the chill from his unexpected drenching seeped into every vein, every muscle.
There was an acrid odour permeating the air.
He gulped in a lungful of it - and almost choked.
I can't breathe!

The debris had entombed him. Not an inch of him was visible to anyone searching through the wreckage.
The search for bodies and potential survivors was continuing. Mark and Steve had joined those who had been assigned the gruesome task.
Mark was tamping down his emotions but he could feel the fear rising despite all his attempts to suppress it. The store was a wreck. Nothing remained which pointed to evidence of what it had been, save for a few charred and soaked remains on the debris-strewn floor.
He was beginning to lose hope that anyone could have survived in here. It seemed improbable at best, impossible at worst.
As they inched forward, careful to avoid those places which were still smouldering with the remains of the fire, and trying not to touch anything which Forensics could use to determine the cause of the blast, the tension continued to build.
More than anything, he did not want to be the one to find the remains of his friend. He didn't think he would ever get over something like that. Jesse was so outgoing, so full of life and fun, his caring and compassionate nature an extension of the man rather than the doctor. It didn't seem possible that all of that could have been snuffed out so easily, so brutally.
His morbid thoughts were only partially distracted by the sight of Amanda and Steve going through the same process as the rest of them. They too were peering into every nook and cranny, desperate for some sign that their young friend still lived.

There was still quite an extensive area to search and he knew that they couldn't give up. But with each moment that passed, so did hope fade.

Jesse fought panic as he strove desperately to draw the poisoned air into his straining lungs. Finally, he managed a shallow breath, although it seared the back of his throat and threatened to choke him.
He didn't care.
After a terrifying moment of gasping for breath, even the noxious fumes he was now gulping in were a blessing. He closed his eyes, which were streaming with the effort of trying to inhale and exhale. The acrid atmosphere was dense with particles of dust, comprised of elements of the ruptured steel beam, bits of the roof and its cladding and the remains of the smoke from the fire. It was a potent, heady mixture and it was making him feel dizzy and nauseous.
He couldn't think clearly. Couldn't understand why he was having such difficulty simply breathing. The front of the store had been exposed to the elements when it had exploded. Had the fire worsened? He couldn't comprehend what was going on.
Slowly, he became aware of the fact that he couldn't move.
There was something pinning him to the floor.
It was all around him.
The full import of his situation hit him a second later.
He was trapped!
'Oh my god!'
A small whimper was torn from his abused throat.
Then another
And another.
He struggled frenziedly to free himself from the confines of his prison. To no avail.
He could barely move. The rubble had effectively imprisoned him in the position in which he had been laying when the roof had fallen. His arms were still wrapped around his torso and his legs were drawn up to his chest. There was no room for manoeuvre.
His breathing grew more and more laboured as terror started to overwhelm him.
He could hear muted sounds. The echo of voices, the crunch of footsteps over the debris and other noises he could not readily identify.
There were other people there!
Why couldn't they see him?
He whimpered again.
"Help!"
The cry was uttered in a hoarse whisper which didn't carry beyond the wreckage in which he was enclosed.
'Oh god …' What if they left him here?
What if they never found him?
He couldn't move!
He had to get out of here!
Why couldn't they hear him?

The mass of rubble which concealed the young doctor was virtually impenetrable. Dust particles still floated in the air above it and parts of it were still settling. The remaining sections of the roof, supported by one badly warped beam, hovered over the remains menacingly, threatening to collapse at any moment, burying victims and rescuers alike.
Torturous groans and screams of metal signalled the strain the upright was carrying as it struggled to support the weight above it.
They were all well aware of the danger, but no-one was willing to give up just yet, not as long as hope remained, even though it didn't seem possible that anyone could have survived the conflagration.
They had already found two bodies and parts of another. Mark had stumbled across the young woman and, moments later, Amanda had almost tripped over a charred, almost unrecognisable body part. She had frozen in utter terror at the sight. Oh god … Jesse? She couldn't move, she didn't even dare breathe as horror washed through her. What if it was …?
The burnt remnants of a shoe that the foot - which was what it was - was wearing bore the clue to the identity of it. Or at least reassured them that it wasn't their young friend. It was blackened and peeling but it was distinguishable as a boot of a type which Jesse didn't wear and besides, it was too large.
Mark had straightened from his examination of the footwear, an expression of strained relief etched on his haggard face. "It's not Jesse," he announced, in a hoarse voice.
Amanda had practically collapsed at the news. She recognised that she was being unprofessional but it hadn't been the sight of the limb which had caused her such horror, more than whose limb it may possibly have been. She hadn't even wanted to consider the thought that it might have been Jesse - and yet she had been unable to prevent the same thought occurring to her.
Images of what he must have endured ran through her mind in an endless, sickening loop - made all the more vivid by the discovery of each body, in differing states of destruction. She couldn't imagine what their lives would be like if he was, indeed, dead. On the other hand, she didn't know how he could possibly have survived.
Angrily, she wiped away the tears which constantly sprang to her eyes, impeding her search for Jesse. He was alive, dammit, and they were going to find him!

Steve's face was etched in granite as he stepped over the wreckage, searching for any clues to the whereabouts of his best friend. He refused to yield to the distinct possibility that Jesse was very likely dead and that they would find his corpse at any moment. Or, worse, that they would never find him because he had been directly in the path of the explosion which had ripped through the place.
He couldn't even contemplate that the young doctor might very well be in worse shape than the dismembered corpse which Amanda had inadvertently stumbled upon. The thought made him sick to his stomach and a huge well of emotion threatened to surge up and overwhelm him.
"This is hopeless!" he ground out as he and his father converged on the mound of rubble at the back of the store. "There has to be a faster way of finding him!"
Mark rubbed a shaking hand over tired features. "I'd like to hear it if there is," he replied.
The detective swallowed hard. This was painful for all of them. He shouldn't be taking his frustration and fear out on the older man. Mark was very fond of Jesse. He was a part of their family.
They had lost Carol some months previously. He had never seen his father so completely devastated. For the first time ever, he had looked his age. It had taken both of them a long time to get past her death and the subsequent discovery that she had been murdered. He didn't think the older man would ever truly accept her fate. He doubted he would, either. It had been difficult to go on after that. Amanda and Jesse had helped considerably. They had both been there, from the first, offering silent support and words of comfort. Their love and encouragement had never faltered and both father and son had been grateful for it.
And now Jesse was missing too. Probably dead … and Steve had no idea if they were ever going to get over this loss.

The silence in his tomb was broken only by the incessant drip, drip, drip of water and the muffled sounds from outside.
If Jesse could have cried, he would, but he didn't have the breath to do so. The fumes that had been trapped in here with him were slowly destroying his lungs and he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
'Please help me!' He screamed, silently. 'Don't leave me here!'
No-one heard his desperate entreaty. They would have to be mind-readers to do so.
He knew he was going to die in here. He was going to die here all alone and no-one would ever find his body.
God, they were so close. How was it possible that they didn't know he was here?
He fought to move, but he was pinioned by the rubble and his movements were made sluggish by the torpor which was slowly creeping over him. He was so cold. The chill had penetrated deep within him and he shivered uncontrollably.
'I don't want to die.'

A cellphone rang. It sounded overly loud in the tense atmosphere and Steve winced as it continued, whilst its owner fumbled for the instrument, finally hitting one of the buttons and turning away to speak into it softly.
Then he stopped in mid-step.
Why hadn't he thought of it before?
"Jesse's cell!" he exclaimed.
Mark turned a quizzical gaze in his direction. "What?" he asked.
"Jesse's cell!" Steve repeated, turning to his father. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before!"
Mark shook his head in bewilderment then, slowly, his expression cleared as comprehension dawned. "Of course! We can find him by ringing his cellphone!"
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Steve had extracted his own cellphone and started punching in the familiar number.

The sound of his phone bursting into life startled Jesse out of the languor into which he had been falling.
The noise filled the small enclosed space in which he was interred and he uttered another hoarse sob. He couldn't even uncurl his arms sufficiently to reach the instrument. If he could, he would have been able to tell whoever was calling him where he was. Instead, he was forced to listen to its endless ringing, knowing that whoever was on the other end would soon give up and go away. And then he would truly be alone.
"Oh god, don't leave me!" he begged, silently. "Please, please don't leave me!"
It continued to ring, taunting him with the fact that he was so close to a rescue - and yet so far away. He wanted to scream at the cruel irony of it and froze, dreading the moment that it would stop, his breaths hitching as silent sobs tore at his throat.
He was going to die here - alone, confined in this tiny hole, cold and hurting and he would never see any of the people he loved ever again.
Oh god, what had he done to deserve this? Why was this happening?
Tears streamed down his dust-caked cheeks as he fought to stay alive.

"Over here!"
The faint tones of a cellphone could be heard. It seemed to originate from the area where the roof had collapsed, leaving a massive pile of rubble strewn over a fairly extensive area.
Steve practically bolted for the spot, fighting his way through the detritus which littered the floor. Mark, more circumspect in his journey across the wreckage, nevertheless arrived at the site at about the same time as his son.
"Is it Jesse?" demanded Amanda, breathlessly, as she reached them not a moment later. She touched Mark's arm. He was shaking.
"God, I hope so," the older doctor replied. "Steve?"
Silence had descended upon the search group as they tried to ascertain from which direction the sound was emanating. Long, tense moments passed, then, "Here!" exclaimed one of the other men, pointing toward one end of the pile. "It's coming from below here!"
Steve swallowed, hard and glanced toward his father and Amanda. Their expressions mirrored what he was feeling, torn between worry and a renewed sense of hope.
The muffled sound of the phone told them where their friend could be found.
What it couldn't reveal was in what condition he was.
He may not even be alive.
The fact that he wasn't answering was ominous enough. It could be that he was just unconscious. The alternative was something they didn't want to consider - even though the prospect had been hanging over them ever since their arrival here.
No-one even voiced the opinion that his cell might not be anywhere near his body.

Steve held up his hands for complete quiet. Then each of them strove to listen, waiting for the slightest indication of life beneath the debris which lay in a grotesque, twisted pile in front of them.
A long moment passed. Then they heard it. It was barely a sound, but the strangled sob was music to their ears, and proof positive that someone still lived beneath the rubble. Jesse was alive!

It was all the impetus they needed. Steve practically leapt forward, intent on getting his friend out of there. As he reached for the first piece of concrete, however, he was stopped by a hand firmly gripping his arm.
"Wait."
The word was uttered with such authority that he instinctively paused, glancing upward into the grim features of the Fire Chief. "Wh …?"
"This whole pile is in danger of collapsing further," the man said, in a grave voice. "Before we go rushing in, we have to ascertain what we can move without causing it to completely crush your friend. It's like playing pixie sticks, Lieutenant. One false move and everything comes crashing down. Not to mention the fact that this pile here seems to be all that's propping up the remaining beam. If we move too fast or too carelessly we could bring the rest of the roof down on all of us and then who'll rescue that young man?"
Steve saw the sense of the man's words, but it didn't ease his impatience nor diminish his desire to get to Jesse. His friend was entombed beneath all that stuff and he must be terrified. Steve tried his best not to imagine how dark and cold and stuffy it was under there, but he couldn't help the shudder which ran through him at the thought.
"Okay," he acquiesced, reluctantly. "Okay, but hurry, will you? We need to get to him. We need to find him."
The Fire Chief nodded. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. We will. " With that, he turned back to his men and started issuing orders.
Steve turned wearily to his father, who was standing beside him, a supportive presence in the organised chaos. "Dad, he … I don't …"
Mark placed a comforting hand on his son's shoulder. "It's all right, Steve," he said, quietly. "Let them do their job. We've found him. We know where he is. Now let's get him out safely."
Steve nodded, grateful for the older man's understanding and understated reassurance. Crouching beside the rubble, he placed a tentative hand on it. "Jesse?" he called out. "Jess, I don't know if you can hear me, but we know where you are. We're gonna get you out, Jesse, I promise. You've just gotta hold on. Can you do that for me? Dad and Amanda are here - we're all here. We're here and we're not gonna leave you. I promise. Just … hold on, Jess, please. Hold on."
There was no reply to his impassioned plea. Not that he had expected one but a wave of disappointment, tempered with a healthy amount of dread washed over him nonetheless. Were they already too late?

The words filtered through the rubble. At some level, Jesse heard and welcomed them. But everything was fading away.

It didn't take long for the Fire Chief and his men to organise everything but every second that passed was an eternity to Steve, Mark and Amanda. There had been no sound from the rubble since that faint sob and their fear for Jesse, diminished once his location had been pinpointed, began to increase once more.
None of them could begin to picture what it was like for their young friend beneath the debris that covered him, but they had their own ideas.
And none of those ideas were particularly comforting.

Once the roof had been made as safe as possible - although the distinct possibility of it collapsing still existed despite their precautions - the rescue workers set to with a renewed fervour. The removal of the wood, cladding, steel and brick which comprised the rubble was, by necessity, done with great care. Haste would only increase the danger to the young man trapped below. They were trying to save him, not hasten his death.

Bit by bit, stone by stone, fragment by fragment, the debris was extracted. The rescuers worked tirelessly, very much aware of the constraints of time - something Jesse had very little of. He had lapsed into unconsciousness even as Steve's words of reassurance had reached him. He had barely comprehended the words, although some of the emotion behind them had got through, briefly warming his soul before his body had lost its battle against the lack of air and the numbing cold. He was labouring for each and every breath and although the bleeding from his wounds had slowed, it had not stopped completely, weakening him even further.
He was completely unaware, therefore, of the moment when light finally broke through the stygian gloom which enshrouded him.
His beleaguered lungs hungrily drew in the air which rushed through the gap, but even that didn't awaken him.
Faces appeared, expressions of concern, horror and dismay adorning them, but he remained totally oblivious.
Nor did he hear the cries of relief and anguish which resulted from their discovery of his body.

They had managed to uncover only the top half of Jesse's torso. The rest of his slender form was still trapped underneath the remaining debris. Most of what had fallen around his head and shoulders had been smaller pieces of roof, and some of the concrete from the wall, It had been held off his face by a couple of larger pieces, which in turn had been propped onto the rest of the rubble. It was a miracle that he hadn't been killed outright, and the small air pocket which had remained had been barely sufficient to keep him alive until he could be rescued. He had almost suffocated. Now they fitted an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, letting the pure oxygen and air flow into his lungs, filling them with life.

Steve crouched next to his father as Mark administered the oxygen to their young friend. "How is he?" he asked, barely able to get the words out past the lump in his throat. As Jesse's upper body and face had come into sight with the removal of the large slab of concrete which had fallen at right angles across him, Steve had been stunned into momentary silence. His friend looked dead. His face was lax and the tear-streaks down the dust-strewn cheeks bore testament to his ordeal. His eyes were tightly closed and his chest didn't appear to be moving.
For one terrible moment, Steve had been convinced that they were too late. Then Mark had reached out a trembling hand, laid it upon the young man's neck and, a second later, head bowed and eyes closed, had let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding as he felt the thready, rapid pulse. He had turned to Steve with tearbright eyes and a tremulous smile, and the detective had known then, without his father having to utter any words, that Jesse was alive.
The oxygen mask had been applied moments later as Mark noted the laboured breathing and the weak movements of Jesse's chest as he strove to breathe.
"He's hanging on," he said, in answer to his son's anxious query. He peered into the rubble which still lay on top of the slight form, shaking his head worriedly. "But god alone knows what shape he's in under that lot." His tone was grave and his hands were busy, attempting to locate any sign of injury to Jesse's chest and upper abdomen.
Steve bit his lip, watching his father examine the young man. He was a doctor's son. More, he had seen the kinds of injuries which could be sustained when a building blew up around people.
He remembered only too well the chaos which had ensued when Caitlin Sweeney had blown up Community General. He and Jesse had been trapped together in one of the rooms. The younger man had not sustained any serious wounds on that occasion, although he had been knocked unconscious. The detective recalled his terror upon regaining consciousness himself to find his best friend lying motionless amidst the remains of the room. His relief upon discovering a strong pulse had been profound. He had moved the younger man to the relative comfort of the dust-strewn bed until such time as he awoke and had then set about the task of trying to get the door open so that he could search for his father and Amanda.
Somehow, he knew that this time, they weren't going to be so fortunate.

He was right. His father glanced up a moment later and the expression on his face confirmed his worst fears.
"He has several broken ribs," Mark said, quietly. "I'm pretty sure there's some internal bleeding too but until I can examine him more thoroughly, I can't tell how serious that is. There's a deep puncture wound on his side and it's been bleeding heavily. How heavily I can't tell exactly because I can't see it and his clothes are soaked with water. He must have been caught in the spray from the water hoses. He's going into shock and he's in danger of pneumonia - he's wet and very cold. We have to get him out of here, Steve."
The detective nodded, numbly. The rescue efforts were continuing even as his father made his initial assessment of his friend's condition.
No-one was smiling. They had managed to free his upper body but obviously they were having trouble with the rest of the debris. They hadn't paused in their efforts, but it was a slow, painstaking process and it was becoming increasingly dangerous for those who were partaking in the process. This part of the building was unsafe and the roof was becoming increasingly unstable as more of the rubble around the one supporting beam was taken away. They had tried to make it as safe as possible but the constant groaning noises coming from above definitely weren't reassuring.
"I … I'll go see what I can do to help them," he said, tightly. His father's blue eyes were bleak and he couldn't bear to look into them a moment longer. He placed a gentle hand upon the dusty blond hair of his friend. "I'll get you out, Jess," he proclaimed "You're gonna be all right. I promise."

Mark's eyes followed him as he got to his feet and left them. Steve was so determined not to give up. He would save his friend with his own bare hands if he could. The father in him felt a rush of pride swell his heart as the detective joined with the men who were taking part in the rescue effort. There was nothing Steve would not do for Jesse. Looking back down at his young friend, however, the older doctor was practically overwhelmed with dread. If they didn't free Jesse soon, none of these efforts would matter.

"How's he doing?" Amanda's gentle voice cut into his morbid thoughts as she took Steve's vacated place beside him.
He shook his head. "It's pretty bad, honey," he said. "His left side has a bad wound, he has some broken ribs and I think there's some internal bleeding. Beyond that he's wet and cold and he's going into shock. As for the rest of it … " his voice tailed off, as he heard himself cataloguing his young friend's injuries. "I dread to think what's going on underneath that debris," he continued, lowering his voice in deference to his young protégé - he might be unconscious but Mark wasn't taking any chances.
"You're thinking crush injuries, aren't you?" ventured the pathologist, quietly. The mute nod she received only increased her own fears for Jesse. She noted that Mark had placed his hand on the blond head and was gently, if absent-mindedly running his fingers through the dust-caked hair. "Do you want to set up an IV?"
He nodded. "I need a blood pressure cuff too. I'd like to be able to monitor his BP. I think we need to be prepared for anything," he replied.
Amanda needed no second bidding. Beckoning over the two paramedics, who had been hovering nearby, waiting for the doctor to finish his examination, she proceeded to tell them what they needed.

Jesse's awareness of the outside world returned slowly. At first he could hear sounds - muted shouts, the noise of machinery, masonry falling. He whimpered helplessly. No-one would ever find him buried under here - especially not if more of the building was collapsing on top of him. Then there was the faintest of touches on his head. Oh god, the rubble was closing in on him!
As he opened his mouth to try to cry for help, a rush of air forced its way in. It was sweet, pure and clean and he almost choked as it reached his lungs.
"Easy, Jess. Just breathe deeply. Don't fight it. It's okay. You're okay."
Mark?
He was totally confused. He didn't remember Mark being trapped in here with him. How could that be his voice - and so close? And what was that about breathing? He inhaled again, and once more that fresh, clean air entered his body. God. He had been so long fighting for every breath and now, suddenly, there was oxygen. He couldn't comprehend how it had got here, didn't understand why Mark's voice seemed so near but he didn't care. All that mattered was that he could breathe again and he gulped in another mouthful, and another, and another, in quick succession. This need was addictive and like any addict he couldn't get enough.


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