Disclaimer - all the bad guys belong to me. The others don't and no, I'm making no money from this, more's the pity!

A Sense of Family

By Cass

The doctors' lounge was quiet, an island of peace and tranquillity in a sea of chaos. Outside in ER utter madness ruled. A freeway accident involving a school bus and several cars, a fire in an abandoned warehouse used by indigents and food poisoning at a Greek wedding had all combined to create a situation which was totally untenable, with Community General's trauma department being stretched far beyond its limits. Doctors and nurses were trying their best to cope with all the casualties but it was an impossible task, with one ambulance after the other pulling up outside, discharging patient after patient. Gurneys lined the hallways, bearing victims with various injuries. They had been assessed immediately upon arrival, the triage having been set up by the head of the ER as soon as they had discovered that they were the major receiving centre for the various incidents.
Groans issued from the injured, adding to the general clamour of voices as doctors issued commands and nursing staff called out for various instruments and more help.
Norman Briggs, recently returned to Community General from a lengthy spell in New York, where he had spent some time on a sabbatical, was on the phone at the nurses' station, screaming down the phone for other hospitals to take some of the afflicted. His own was bearing the brunt of it and his staff were under enormous pressure - too much pressure. Most of them had been working flat out now for close to twenty hours; assessing and treating the more serious injuries in the OR and attending to those whose wounds could be left for a little longer in the various trauma rooms and side cubicles. His surgeons were exhausted, making them prone to mistakes. This wasn't some field army hospital where they could bag 'em and tag 'em for gods' sake. This was a city hospital. And whilst his staff were superb at what they did, too much was being asked of them. They couldn't sustain this level of stress for much longer. His Chief of Internal Medicine had already informed him that they all had at least another ten hours ahead of them just to treat those who had already arrived. Piling more on top was simply unfair and he wouldn't tolerate it.
He obviously received the answer he wanted because he replaced the receiver with a weary yet satisfied smile. His good humour didn't last long, however as he was accosted by the head nurse, demanding that he send for more agency staff. She simply didn't have enough to cope with what was being asked of them.
With a heavy sigh, he picked up the telephone again and started to punch in a number.

Jesse Travis sat at the table in the one place of refuge amidst the carnage, nursing his first cup of coffee since coming on duty the day before. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, let alone when he had last slept. He thought he might have grabbed something before leaving his apartment fifteen hours before but he wasn't entirely sure. He had fully intended going to the canteen to get something - then the deluge had begun and he had barely had the time to even draw breath between each patient.
It was Mark who had ordered him to take a break. He had taken one look at the younger doctor, seen the slightly glazed expression in the normally clear blue eyes and decided that a few minutes away from the pandemonium would perhaps re-charge his protégé's flagging energy. It certainly couldn't hurt. "I think we can cope for ten minutes without our best surgeon," he had said, gently.
The unsolicited praise had warmed Jesse's heart and he had gladly acquiesced to his mentor's suggestion.
Now he stared down into a rapidly cooling cup of coffee, ruminating on the odd little twists and turns that could take place in a person's life.

*One year earlier*

Bored and at a loss for something to do, Jesse wandered into the path lab, idly hoping that perhaps a corpse had been brought in which could initiate a murder enquiry.
Not that he particularly relished the thought that someone might have been killed. But things had been hectic at Community General and 'Bob's' of late and he hadn't had much chance to spend any time with his three friends.
Oh sure, he had seen Mark around the hospital - they had passed in corridors like ships in the night - and occasionally Steve's hours at 'Bob's had overlapped with his before his new assignment had taken the detective away from the restaurant, but the demands on their time were threatening to drive their close-knit little circle apart.
He mentally chided himself for this thought. He was becoming paranoid. It must have been all those late night tacos from the Mexican place down the road - purchased mainly because by the time he got home he was too exhausted to even think about cooking himself a meal.
And that was another thing. There hadn't even been time of late for the customary mid-week and weekend meal at the beach house. In fact, he was beginning to forget what the place looked like, it had been so long since he'd been there.
He knew that Steve and Mark had also barely seen the inside of their own home for several weeks. Mark had been involved in another fight with the Hospital Board, spending his supposed off-duty hours in his office preparing graphs and charts and wading through various reports in his effort to maintain their current staffing levels and attempting to persuade them that another wing in the hospital would be a good thing.
Steve's assignment, meanwhile, had meant working undercover, which Jesse knew had worried Mark greatly and had only added to the stress the older man had been under. The detective had thus, inevitably, been unavailable to help out at 'Bob's' - after all, he wasn't supposed to be Steve Sloan, part-owner of a BBQ joint. He was a hired hit man in from Detroit.
That had meant, however, that Jesse had pulled more than his fair share of shifts there and, coupled with his work at the hospital, where a viral infection had struck down more than half of the staff, plus the extra curricular activities that he had found for himself - writing a couple of review articles for a noted medical journal and doing two more drug trials - the result was one very tired, very irritable ER doctor.
He hadn't seen Amanda much, either. First CJ then Dion had been sick with the same nasty illness that had affected the hospital and was beginning to grip the whole of LA and she had taken some time off to be with them. They were both well on the road to recovery now, however and she had been back at work for a couple of days.
And today had, miraculously, been a slow one. The casualties that had rolled through Community General's ER doors had been minor ones and Jesse hadn't even had to don his OR gown to operate. A suture or two and some resetting of bones had been all that had been necessary.
Unfortunately, it had given him a lot of time to think. And the thinking he was doing wasn't entirely pleasant.
He was feeling lonely. He needed to reconnect with his friends - his family if truth be told - and Amanda was first on the list.
And if there was a murder to solve - which could involve all four of them, like in the old days - then all the better!

The pathologist was on the telephone as he ambled into the path lab. She was laughing heartily and sharing an obviously intimate joke with someone on the other end.
" … no, no, you didn't?! Oh my god! And then what happened?! It did? Well, only you! No, I mean it - no-one else would have dared … what? Hey, listen, mister, you forget how long I've known you! Oh yes! That too! I …" Her voice trailed away as she suddenly became aware that she was no longer alone and she half turned to see Jesse lounging beside the door.
He waved at her, grinning widely. "Hey, Amanda," he said. "I just came …"
"Jesse, I'm on the phone!" she hissed. "Can whatever it is wait until later?"
Frowning and trying not to show on his face how wounded he felt at her offhand attitude - a consequence, he knew, of his increasing paranoia - he nodded. "Sure," he said, as lightly as he could. "I'll … I'll see you around."
Turning to leave, he heard her return to her phone call, tinkling laughter echoing after him as he shut the door behind him.

The afternoon brought an influx of more serious casualties and he didn't have the time to ponder over Amanda or his own hurt feelings. Much later, changing out of his scrubs and donning his t-shirt and pants he reflected that he was probably over-reacting anyway. It was just that he missed his friends. He missed the familial atmosphere that surrounded him when he was amongst them.
They could hardly help it, though, if they were all busy.
He had been busy too, after all.
And he shouldn't - and didn't - begrudge Amanda a moment of relaxation and - it had to be said, from the look on her face and the expression in her voice - pure joy. She certainly deserved it after the last couple of weeks.
Putting aside his wounded pride - because that was all it was, he told himself - he resolved to talk to his friends tomorrow.
At least Mark had finally won his battle with the Board, or so hospital gossip had it. Maybe he would see his mentor around a bit more now.
As he slid into the driver's side of his car he made himself relax.
It would all look a whole lot better in the morning.

Unfortunately, morning brought with it a splitting headache - which worsened as the day went on. It was busy, too, leaving him no time for shared niceties with either Mark or Amanda.
He spotted both of them at different times of the day - but only from a distance. At one point they were both standing together at the nurse's station and Amanda was obviously sharing some good news with Mark because he looked extraordinarily pleased about something.
He wished he could go over and share in the joy, because the way he was feeling he could certainly use some of what they had. But yet another casualty pulled him away and the next time he emerged from the OR there was no sign of either of them.
He trudged back to his locker that night, feeling like death warmed over.
When he got home, the first thing he did was turn up the heating. He was freezing. He didn't feel like eating - which should have set alarm bells ringing but he was too exhausted and, by this time, too sick to realise it - instead opting to crawl into bed and shiver incessantly under the covers.
At some point he drifted off to sleep but when he awoke the next morning to the sun streaming through the window, he felt even worse than the day before. Something he hadn't thought was possible.
He considered calling in sick, but realised that he couldn't. The viral infection that had already felled more than half of the ER staff was proving more virulent than had been anticipated and all of them were still off sick. He had half hoped that at least a couple of them would turn up the day before, but had been sorely disappointed. As head of the ER it was his duty, therefore, to go in and hold down the fort, regardless of the fact that he felt like crap.
He looked it too, he realised, when he caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror. His eyes were all puffy and red and large dark shadows had taken up residence beneath them. His skin was pale and sallow looking and his tongue was a very strange shade of yellow.
His attempt to shave was severely hampered by the trembling of his hands and it took him almost fifteen minutes to complete a task that should have taken him five. And even then he ended up almost slashing his own throat.
He left the apartment on legs that felt like they belonged to someone else. They certainly didn't want to co-operate with his brain as he stumbled shakily down the steps to where he had parked his car.
Once in the vehicle, he fumbled with the keys, the jangling noise exacerbating the headache that had returned with a vengeance. Finally he managed to switch on the ignition but then he just sat there, knowing that he wasn't going to be able to drive.
With a sigh of utter defeat, he turned off the power and reached for his cell. He would have to call someone. He was feeling worse by the minute and it occurred to him - belatedly and he had no idea why he had not realised it sooner - that he must have picked up the infection that had taken out his other colleagues.
Only he didn't remember anyone saying that it had started off this badly.
He barely managed to punch in the number, or hear the distant voice say 'Mark Sloan," before darkness zeroed in and the cellphone fell to the floor as he slumped sideways in his seat.

Mark stared at the phone in his hand for long seconds, momentarily frozen to his seat. Then he jammed down the receiver rest and punched in a short series of numbers.
"I want an ambulance sent to this address! Immediately!" he ground out as soon as he got an answer from the other end. Reading out Jesse's apartment address he tried to control the fear that was tying a knot in his stomach, but the memory of the soft sigh and the sound of the cellphone impacting with the floor rang in his ears.
He should have realised sooner.
He should have seen how sick Jesse was.
Correction, he had seen it - yesterday. He had noticed the young man slumped by the doorway to one of the trauma rooms, looking distinctly green around the gills. He had intended going to him then, insisting that he went home and rested, or possibly admitting him where he could keep an eye on him personally. But he had been distracted by Amanda and her news about Jack.
His first protégé was coming back to LA.
He had been offered a position at Community General.
Mark had been so thrilled about the prospect of having his friend and oft-times surrogate son back that all thoughts of Jesse - his other surrogate son - had slipped from his mind.
And now he was paying the price.
Correction. Jesse was paying the price.

Mark was waiting by the nurse's station when the ambulance drew up outside. He had been kept informed of Jesse's condition by the EMT's, who had found him sprawled unconscious on the front seat of his Mustang. They had reported his exceptionally high temperature, his rapid pulse and his laboured breathing and Mark's own heart had quickened.
Jesse had obviously been sick for some days and had not realised it. He must have known something was wrong the day before, however and had still come in, manning the ER like it was his own personal responsibility - which it was, of course, as head of the department. Yet he shouldn't have had to do that. Mark should have offered him some support - or he should have asked for some himself.
But Jesse Travis - Mark also knew - was not one to admit defeat easily. He would rather die than confess to being really sick. And his conscience wouldn't have allowed him to leave the ER yet another doctor down - especially the one who was actually in charge of it. He had undoubtedly tried to get some cover for those who were off ill, but it was a city-wide epidemic. They had even had a few cases brought here in the beginning.
And late last night and this morning, two people had actually died of it.
And that was what was playing on Mark's mind as the gurney carrying his young friend crashed through the ER doors.
The virus had been raging unchecked but mostly harmlessly for some time but had escalated overnight.
Two people had died.
Admittedly, one of them had had a heart condition and the other was suffering from terminal cancer.
Still ..
He didn't want this particular victim to be the third.

Steve knocked on the door to Jesse's room and, as his father half-turned at the sound, entered.
"How's he doing, dad?" he whispered. Somehow ICU always had that effect on him. He had no idea why. If someone was in ICU then generally they were so deeply unconscious that even had he been yelling he wouldn't have awoken them. He guessed it was out of respect for the condition those who were housed here were usually in.
And Jesse was no exception.
He looked awful.
His face was bleached free of colour, dark smudges circled his tightly closed eyes and his breathing was ragged. He was also utterly still and that frightened Steve more than any of the other symptoms. Jesse was never still. He was a literal whirlwind of energy. Steve hadn't been at all surprised to hear from his father that his young friend had taken so long to succumb to the disease that was now running rampant through the city. It probably hadn't been able to catch up with him until sheer exhaustion had forced him to slow down.
That was where any levity at his friend's condition ended, however. He was only too well aware that this thing had taken the lives of a couple of people already and could conceivably do the same with others.
The CDC had already been made aware of its existence, he knew, but the fact that most of the victims had responded so positively to treatment had prevented their arrival here en masse. One or two of their number had made the journey - simply to offer their assistance and to run tests on the infection. But fortunately, the city had not been subjected to a major lockdown nor had panic or hysteria set in - although if any more deaths occurred he knew that would soon change. All the cops at his precinct and others had been put on standby as had the National Guard. The city council was taking no chances.
Ambling nearer the bed in which Jesse lay, Steve felt a prickle of fear for his friend. He had been forced to don mask and protective clothing to even enter the room and his father was garbed in something similar. He was holding Jesse's limp hand in his gloved one, absently stroking the back of it with one thumb. It was a gesture Steve recalled from when he had been very sick once and it only emphasised his dad's state of mind and the way in which he regarded Jesse - as a younger son.
Mark shook his head as Steve reached him. "He's not improved," he said, in a choked voice, muffled by the sterile mask. "The virus has had a chance to take a real hold on him. It's not surprising - he's had to cover nearly every shift just lately and couple that with his shift at 'Bob's', the drug trials and everything else he manages to fit into 24 hours - he's just worn himself out. He didn't stand a chance against it and because his system is so weakened due to the fatigue this thing has affected him very, very badly."
Steve forced himself to remain calm. Panicking was going to help no-one - least of all Jesse, or his father. The fact that he felt very much like screaming was just something he was going to have to get over.
"He … he's not gonna …" He couldn't say the word. It wasn't like it wasn't in his vocabulary. He was a homicide detective, after all. He dealt with death every day. But nothing had ever prepared him for the possible demise of someone he cared about.
Mark's eyes were bleak. "I don't know, Steve," he replied. His distress was palpable. "I just don't know."

A little while later Steve sat in the doctors' lounge, staring broodingly into a cup of cold coffee. He couldn't get Jesse's fast deteriorating condition nor his father's words out of his mind.
Amanda found him there. She had heard about Jesse's admission to the ICU and had been to visit, shocked at the ashen features and tortured breathing. She couldn't help but remember how she had treated him the day before, dismissing him so easily whilst she chatted to Jack. She hadn't missed the brief flare of pain in his eyes - quickly concealed but had chosen to ignore it. She would apologise later. The thought that she may now never be able to apologise at all ate away at her like a living thing and she bitterly regretted her words.
"Hey, Steve," she said, dismally, slumping into a chair at the table, next to him.
"Hey, Amanda," he replied, sounding equally wretched. But he didn't have anything to reproach himself for, she reflected. He wasn't the one whose last words to their friend had been so thoughtless. The last time Steve and Jesse had spent time together they had been engaged in a verbal sparring match at 'BBQ Bob's', which had descended into out and out chaos, culminating in a battle of sauce bottles from behind the counter, under the tables and from the relative shelter of doorways.
She had received a direct hit, she recalled now, fondly. Jesse had been mortified but had been forced to duck before he could apologise properly as Steve took the opportunity offered by his opponent's momentary carelessness to launch an all out attack, squirting ketchup straight toward his face.
They had still been laughing hours later as they cleaned up the mess the two had made of their own restaurant and Jesse had bemoaned the fact that they would have to buy fresh sauce, Steve's retort that he had enough sauce for an entire city earning him a pouty glare from the young doctor.
The very thought that there may never be any more times like that sent a shudder up and down her spine and she found she couldn't control the rising tide of emotions.
"Oh, Steve," she sobbed. "We can't lose him. We just can't!"

Jack Stewart strode through the doors of Community General and then paused, drinking in the atmosphere.
My god, he had missed this place.
He had missed the people too.
It was a little strange that none of them had been at the airport to greet him, but then, he reasoned, he had been a little vague about flight times.
Mark had seemed unduly distracted the last time he had spoken to him, too and he had got the distinct impression that his friend had not really listened to a word he had said. The older man had muttered something about getting back to a patient and Jack had reluctantly said 'goodbye'. If he had felt at all uneasy about his return here, the welcoming environment - much changed since his departure, a result, he knew of the explosion that had almost flattened the place a few years before - banished that feeling.
Exchanging a smile with the nurse on duty he leaned on the desk and extended a hand. "Hi," he drawled. "I'm Dr Jack Stewart. Dr Mark Sloan's expecting me. Can you tell me where his new … I mean his office is?"
The young woman, whose name badge proclaimed her to be 'Tiffany' smiled as she shook his hand and he held on for a little while longer than necessary. She liked what she saw. He was tall, dark and handsome and he had a fabulous smile. She felt as though she was drowning in his deep hazel eyes and it took her a full five seconds before she realised he had asked her a question and a couple more before she realised what that question was. "Oh, he's not in his office," she said, sweetly. "He's in ICU. He's been there all night."
Jack sniggered. "Devotion to duty? That sounds like Mark. Must be a very important patient to keep him there that long."
Her smile faded at the knowledge of who that patient was. "It's Doctor Travis," she said. "Jesse. He's head of the ER, you know. He's … he's real sick with this viral thing that's been going around. He's been there for a couple of days now and Dr Sloan refuses to leave his side."
Jack frowned. Jesse Travis. He had heard that name somewhere. Oh yeah. A few years back, Amanda had told him that a new intern had started. His name had been Jesse Travis. She had mentioned that Mark had taken him under his wing. Jack had been pleased that his mentor and friend had taken up his suggestion to teach again and it had sounded like he had found a new protégé already.
But he hadn't been aware that said protégé had progressed so quickly to the position he himself had been considering all those years ago before his abrupt departure for pastures new and much more lucrative, nor, more tellingly, that Mark had apparently become so attached that he spent entire nights at his bedside when the other man was ill.
"He must be real special to Dr Sloan," he mused to Tiffany.
She nodded sadly. "Oh, he is. People around here say he's like a son to him. He's a really nice guy too. Everyone likes him. I don't know anyone who doesn't."
Jack forebore to say that he might wind up being the exception to that particular rule. After all, it was entirely possible that he might like this guy. They did have a few things in common. They were both doctors; they were both protégés of Mark Sloan and apparently they were both family.
The latter might, however, be the one thing that stood against Jesse Travis.

Jesse slowly became aware that he was too hot. He couldn't quite figure this out because, as far as he recalled, earlier, he had been chilled to the bone.
He was cocooned, too. He was lying on something soft and yielding and something heavy lay across his body. Panic filtered through his mind, only to be chased away by his next thought.
Feel sick …
The next moment action fitted words as bile rose in his throat and he gagged helplessly. Then he was being turned on his side, something hard and restricting was removed from his face and a warm, familiar voice was comforting him as a soothing hand stroked his back.
Finally he lay back, gasping for breath and the hard restricting 'something' was placed back over his nose and mouth. Air flowed over his nostrils, and he inhaled deeply, desperate to be able to breathe.
"Take it easy, Jesse," the voice told him. He felt a touch on his arm and something stroked his skin. It didn't feel like flesh though. It was dry, brittle and strange.
He struggled to open his eyes, his own innate curiosity getting the better of his desire to just lay there and breathe. It was hard going. His eyelids felt like they were superglued to his face. Eventually, though, he managed it and squinted upwards, staring blearily at the fuzzy figure who loomed over him.
"Well, welcome back, Jess," the voice said. "It's all right, you don't have to do anything. Just lie there. Don't even think about moving."
He wanted to say that he couldn't have moved if all the hounds of hell had been after him, but his voice appeared to have taken a vacation as all that emerged was the tiniest whimper. Something touched his brow - it was the same dry, brittle thing from before. Blinking rapidly he tried to clear his vision so that he could find out what it was and gasped in alarm when he was finally able to make out the garbed figure beside him.
"It's all right, Jesse," the strangely attired form told him in Mark's melodious voice. He peered more closely at the man and slowly relaxed as he recognised the blue eyes gazing down at him from above the mask. A frown creased his forehead as he struggled to make sense of what was going on and why Mark would be dressed like that.
"You've been very sick, son," Mark enlightened him, seeing the bewilderment on his young friend's face. "You caught that viral infection. It's become very contagious. That's why I'm dressed like this - it's procedure. It's so I can stay with you without catching it."
Jesse shook his head. He didn't understand any of this. Viral infection? People dead?
What was going on?

Mark sighed as he grabbed the younger man's hand, squeezing it tightly in reassurance. "Jesse, remember that illness that took out most of our doctors and nurses and was sweeping through LA?"
Jesse searched through his memories and finally found one that corresponded with what Mark was saying. Slowly he nodded.
"All right then," the older man went on. "Well, it finally caught up with you. You tried to call me from your car but you passed out before you could let me know how you were feeling."
The young doctor shuddered. That he remembered. The headache, the feeling of cold, the tremors. He had nearly cut his throat whilst trying to shave …! Reluctantly, he nodded again.
"The virus escalated whilst you were sick, Jesse," Mark told him, gravely. "Some people died from it - or from the effects it had on their already weakened systems."
And Mark had said he'd stayed with him. Had they been afraid that he would succumb too?
But why? He was young, healthy, with no underlying problems. There was no earthly reason they should have thought that.
"You were exhausted from the double shifts, Jess," Mark continued, almost as though he had been reading the younger man's mind. Jesse had often suspected that he could and this only emphasised that belief. "The infection took a very strong hold on you. You've been non responsive for two days, your fever climbing higher and higher. If it had gone on much longer then your heart would have stopped and you would have died."
Stunned, Jesse could only stare upward at his mentor. He'd nearly died? Oh my god ….
Mark tightened his hold on the hand that he held. "Your fever broke early this morning," he said, sounding relieved and grateful. "You're going to be all right."
I am?
Of course, he couldn't say it. The will was there, but there was too much effort involved in making the words come out of his mouth. Mark seemed to understand though because he smiled. Or at least, Jesse assumed he did when he saw the older man's eyes crinkle at the corners. "Yes, you are. Thank god."
He didn't actually know who to thank. He suspected that a large part of his gratitude belonged to the man beside him, the man who had apparently been keeping a bedside vigil.
Had Mark been at his side throughout?
Looking at him properly, he began to think that might be true. His mentor looked pretty wiped. He looked like he hadn't been to bed in a couple of days.
Had it only been a few days ago that he had been bemoaning the loss of his adopted family? He smiled faintly. It all seemed so stupid now. He should have known better - usually did, in fact. Maybe it had been the infection clouding his mind. He must have been sick for several days without realising it till the first symptoms had hit.
Then he remembered that Mark had told him some of the victims of this sickness had died and dismay crept over him.
The older man couldn't help but notice the lightning change in facial expressions on his young friend's mobile features. He couldn't quite figure out the sadness in Jesse's eyes, though. "You're going to be just fine, Jesse," he reiterated, hoping that would help. "And as soon as you're able, I know two people who are desperate to come see you."
Steve and Amanda, Jesse guessed, his sorrow at the loss of life momentarily displaced by the sense of relief that was creeping over him.
He couldn't wait to see them, either.
But right now he was tired. Very tired. He couldn't keep his eyes open any more. It required too much of an effort and he didn't have the energy left to make it. Reluctantly, he allowed his eyelids to drift shut, then they flickered opened again, just to make sure.
Yep, Mark was still there; still smiling and still holding his hand.
He was wearing sterile gloves. Ah, so that was why they had felt so weird.
He knew he should feel embarrassed about the fact that Mark was actually clasping his hand so tightly in his own but it felt too good.
It felt like he had someone who cared about him.
He'd be self-conscious about it later.

Mark watched as Jesse slowly slid into a natural healing sleep, the long, slender fingers slackening in his grip as the tension eased away from the young man's body.
Carefully, he relinquished his hold on his protégé's hand and placed it gently back on the bed. Then he leaned back in his chair, feeling for the first time the aches and pains that had been held at bay by two days of unremitting fear for his friend's life.
Jesse was going to be okay now. A couple more days and he would be out of ICU and in an ordinary room, where he could recuperate before being released. Mark smiled to himself as he envisioned the inevitable arguments that would commence once the younger doctor located his voice. Jesse was notoriously difficult as a patient - especially once he started recovering. His constant entreaties to be discharged bordered on whining and his whining usually deteriorated into brief periods of sulking, complete with the famous Travis pout.
He reflected somewhat ruefully that they would undoubtedly have to endure similar behaviour this time, as well.
Rising from his chair, he stretched, working out the kinks in his body. The last two days had taken its physical toll on him, too. He just hadn't felt able to leave the younger man - not whilst he was in so much danger. He had no idea whether Jesse had been aware of his presence beside him during the long, terrifying hours of his illness but Mark had wanted to be there just in case. Perhaps, subliminally, the younger man had known that someone was with him. Perhaps that was what had helped him turn the corner.
The fact that he had was enough for Mark right now, though.
Now all the older man wanted to do was sleep.
And now he could.
With a last, fond look at his young friend, who had curled up into a ball under the covers, he ambled toward the door, intent on going home and climbing into his own bed.

After exchanging a few words with the nurse on duty, asking her to call him at home when Jesse showed signs of waking up, he made his way toward the elevator. So tired and lost in thought was he that it wasn't until he heard the doors opening that he even realised that the car had arrived. He moved forward, intending to step inside, but before he could do so, he was bowled over by someone barrelling into him from the other side of the doors.
"Ooof!" he exclaimed, as he was knocked to the floor, landing with a distinct thud on the hard linoleum.
"Mark!" came the mortified exclamation in a voice he recognised. "Gee, Mark, I'm sorry! You okay? Here."
Gazing upward in mild shock, Mark took the hand that had been extended downward toward him, allowing himself to be hauled to his feet, where he stood for a moment, swaying with fatigue, trying to make sense of the figure who stood before him. "Jack?" he gasped, thoroughly confused. "What are you doing here?"
The grin that had appeared on the handsome face at seeing his old friend faded at the question. "Mark? Mark, you knew I was coming. We spoke on the phone - remember?"
Searching his memory, the older man vaguely recalled a conversation that had taken place on the telephone a day ago. He had left Jesse's side for perhaps a total of ten minutes that day. Wait - that had been Jack? "I … I'm sorry. He smiled tiredly at the other man. "Its … been a rough few days."
"Yeah." Jack nodded understandingly. "You've been sitting up with a sick friend, I hear?"
If there was any rancour in the younger man's voice, Mark didn't pick up on it. His thoughts were still focussed on the man he had just left. Rubbing shaky hands over eyes gritty with the lack of sleep, he nodded. "That I have. But he's doing a lot better now."
"Glad to hear it." Jack sounded genuinely pleased and Mark's heart lifted just a little. A hand slapped his shoulder and the grin returned in full, devastating force. "So, what d'you say we go and get a cup of that godawful coffee and talk about old times and new?"
"That would be great, Jack," replied Mark. "But … can we do it another time? I'm exhausted. I was just about to go home and get some sleep."
"Oh. Right. Yes, of course." Bitter disappointment coloured the younger man's voice. "I … er … I guess I'll see you later, then?"
Mark nodded, grateful that Jack wasn't going to make a big deal out of it. Truthfully, he wanted nothing more than to relax and spend some time with his newly returned friend, but he was wise enough to admit that if he even sat down right now he wouldn't stay awake long and that wasn't fair to Jack - not after coming all this way. Stepping away from the other man to enter the elevator, he leaned on the 'hold' button for a moment, regarding his ex-protege with an amiable smile. "It is good to see you, Jack," he said, warmly. "Really good." Then he allowed the doors to close and the next moment, he and the elevator were gone.

Jack remained where he was for the longest moment, trying to sift through the feelings of hurt, disappointment and betrayal that the encounter had engendered.
He hadn't been expecting a hero's welcome exactly, but he certainly had been anticipating something better than that. He tried to tell himself that Mark was tired; that he was in fact practically dead on his feet after his long vigil, but somehow, that didn't assuage the anger that was slowly being fanned into existence. Mark had been tired, yes and he obviously needed to rest. But that didn't give him the right to treat him like a stranger.
He wasn't a stranger. He was practically a member of the family.
And the members of that family had so far failed to meet him at the airport and had barely managed a civil greeting.
And he was beginning to resent the reason for that.
Jesse Travis.

Before he left the hospital, Mark knew that he had one very important task to perform - imparting the good news about Jesse to two very anxious people.
As the elevator reached the first floor, he thought back over his brief encounter with Jack, troubled by a feeling he couldn't identify. Then he realised what it was - exasperation with himself.
What had he been thinking? He should have asked the younger man to accompany him. He knew Steve and Amanda had been looking forward to their friend's return and they would have kept Jack entertained whilst he headed off home for some much needed rest.
He sighed heavily. Jack had looked so disillusioned by his rather offhand greeting - and no wonder. After all, before his departure to pastures new, they had all been very close.
He must have felt as though his place had been usurped by someone else - especially as Mark had obviously found all the time in the world to sit at the bedside of his latest protégé yet had barely managed the few moments for a civil greeting to his first one. How that must have rankled.
And that was something else that troubled the older man. He didn't want Jesse and Jack to hate each other - not that Jesse had a vindictive bone in his body. But Jack was not Jesse and he certainly would have cause to hate the younger man after being virtually ignored by his mentor.
Mark wanted them to get on.
He sighed deeply.
Why was life never simple?
Making a firm resolve to make it up to the younger man, he continued his journey toward the doctor's lounge where Amanda and Steve awaited him. He would ask if they could go rescue their old friend from the ICU, and reassure him that he was still welcome here - both at the hospital and in their hearts.

Two heads swivelled at his entrance, two sets of fear-filled eyes locking onto his as he shut the door and made his way to a seat.
"Well?" ground out Steve, impatiently. His hands were clenched into fists, Mark noticed absently and he looked tense and strained.
"He's going to be just fine," Mark said, not wishing to keep them in suspense any longer than necessary. "He woke up a few minutes ago. The fever's dropping and he's gone back to sleep."
"Oh, thank god!" breathed Amanda, dropping her head into her hands.
Steve smiled - it lit up his entire face, bringing a sparkle back to eyes dulled with days old dread. "That's great news, dad!" he exclaimed, clapping his father on the shoulder in delight. Then his eyes narrowed as he took in the older man's condition. "My god, you look exhausted," he went on. "Are you going home now?"
Mark nodded. He didn't feel up to much else.
"Well, you can't drive in your condition," Steve said, crisply. "Let me drive you."
He looked up at the younger Sloan, reaching up to cover the hand that was squeezing his shoulder. "Thanks, Steve," he said, appreciatively.
"I think I'll just pop up and look in on Jesse," Amanda said. Tears stood in her eyes - but they were tears of relief and joy and she looked like a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulder.
"Jesse …" murmured Mark. "Right. Oh! Amanda, Steve! I forgot to tell you! Jack's back!"
"He is? Where is he?" The pathologist glanced around as though she half-expected Mark to produce him from thin air.
"He's up on ICU. It's a long story," he went on, at her quizzical look. "I just met him up there. Anyway, perhaps you'd look after him whilst I …?"
"Of course I will, Mark!" she interjected as his voice trailed away. He looked grey and haggard with fatigue and all she wanted was to see Steve take him home. "Don't you worry about a thing. I'll look in on Jesse and bring Jack down here. It'll be wonderful to see him again."
"Thanks, honey," He smiled at her gratefully.
"Think nothing of it," she replied, rising from her chair and pausing on her way to the door to plant a kiss on top of his shock of white hair. "Just you look after yourself, now. Okay?"

Amanda found Jack hovering beside the nurse's station in ICU. She paused for a moment after disembarking from the elevator, eyeing him with keen appraisal.
He looked good, she decided, after a while. Darned good. Colorado had obviously suited him. He was lean and tanned and athletic-looking. It was no wonder all the women up there had been falling over themselves trying to date him!
"This'll never do, Bentley!" she chided herself mentally. "He's your friend, not a prospective date! Still …"
She couldn't help but admire the muscular physique nor was she immune to the powerful aura emanating from him. She watched with amusement as the nurse with whom he was conversing practically salivated at his proximity, her words stumbling over themselves as she attempted to respond.
Then Amanda realised he was asking for directions to Jesse's room, and she frowned.
What would Jack want with Jesse?
Suddenly bristling protectively, without really understanding the reason why, she stepped forward, planting a grin on her face as she did so. "Jack!" she exclaimed. "Jack Stewart!"
His head whipped around at her greeting and before she knew what was happening she was in his arms, her face buried in his shoulder. He smelt of cologne and fresh mountain air and she inhaled deeply as she returned the hug.
"Amanda," he said, her name sounding like a sigh. "Amanda, my god, it's wonderful to see you!"
"It'd be wonderful to see you too," she gasped, as he tightened his hold, threatening to take her breath away. "If only you'd let me go a moment so I could!"
With a chuckle reminiscent of Mark's he obediently relinquished his hold on her, stepping back slightly so that she could look at him but still keeping her in the circle of his arms. "Well?" he demanded, his smile not having changed one bit. It was still as charming and rakish as ever. "What d'ya think? Do I look like a prominent doctor from the city or what?"
"Very nice," she told him, admiringly, giving him the once-over. Her hands rested on his upper arms and she couldn't resist giving the muscles she could feel beneath the expensive beige wool coat he was wearing a squeeze. "Nice biceps," she murmured.
He sniggered. "Is that a medical opinion, Dr Bentley?"
Realising what she had just said - aloud! - she clutched his coat lapels, her head falling forward into his chest. "Oh my god," she muttered, her words muffled by the thick cable sweater he was wearing. "I can't believe I said that!"
"Well, you did," he said, amused by her reaction. His hand rose upward to rest on her head, long fingers instinctively drifting through her thick dark hair.
For a moment neither one of them spoke, lost in the moment.
It was Amanda who recovered first, moving backward until she stood at a discreet distance from him. She laughed, a false, nervous sound. "I … er … well, it's good to see you, anyway, Jack."
Similarly nervous, and mortified at allowing long-since buried emotions to hold sway over him as they had he laughed too. It was equally uneasy, equally insincere. "So," he said, brusquely, looking everywhere but in her direction. "What's new at Community General since I left?"
"What's new?" she echoed. "Well, let's see, I've had a baby, who's now at kindergarten, thank you very much; I'm divorced - although it turned out we were never really married so we had to get married over the radio and Jesse is still convinced I married the pilot. Steve has dated …"
"Steve always dates," interjected Jack scornfully, digesting the rest of her news for later and saying nothing about her reference to 'Jesse'. "It's keeping a woman he has problems with."
"Well, he's engaged, thank you!" Amanda informed him, archly.
His eyebrows rose. "Steve? Engaged?" he echoed incredulously. "What woman would be crazy enough to take on that reprobate?"
"Her name's Ellen," the pathologist said. "She's a reporter. She's on a big story somewhere in East Asia right now. But you'll meet her - if you're here long enough."
"Oho! Is that a challenge, Dr Bentley?"
She shrugged indifferently. "It might be."
"Well, I might just have to take you up on that!"
"I hope you do!" she replied. "So, what else do I have to tell you? Oh, yes, as you can see, we redecorated …"
"I heard you had to do that when the hospital got blown up," he interjected.
She winced. "Yeah. That was … that was …"
Immediately regretting his flippant attitude at the nightmare event that must still cause her some sleepless nights, he wound a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Sorry, Amanda," he apologised. "You know me and my big mouth."
"I certainly do, mister," she responded, a little ruefully. "It certainly got you and me into trouble more than once."
"Ah, those were the days, huh?"
"Hmmm," she agreed, somewhat dubiously. "They certainly were."
"So, gonna give me a guided tour, then, Doctor?" he asked, his eyes twinkling with mirth as he gazed down at her.
She eyed him suspiciously. She had seen that expression before and it boded no good. Still … "Very well, then," she agreed, trying to sound put upon. "Come on."

Steve wanted to ask his father about his encounter with Jack, but the older man fell asleep almost as soon as he had buckled himself into Steve's car. The detective smiled affectionately at Mark as he reached into the back seat, to drag a travel blanket out from under the torch, tools and files that lay strewn across it. There was also a menu there from 'BBQ Bob's'. He had been meaning to talk to Jesse about updating it - but that had been before his friend had been struck down with the virus. His smile faded as he tucked the blanket over his father and his thoughts drifted back to the younger doctor.
They had so nearly lost Jesse. Steve understood only too well how serious it had all been, how desperately sick his friend had become. He had seen the younger man, for god's sake, had watched as he struggled to breathe, witnessed the fragile body holding on determinedly to life, his father's expression telling him what he had fought so hard to deny. That they may very well lose the youngest member of their tight-knit group.
But he was going to be just fine. He hadn't succumbed to the virus like others had - five in all. They had included a young woman on drugs and one child. The tally had been too high - but could have been even more costly.
The infection had run its course, with those who had been affected by it now almost fully recovered. Even most of its afflicted staff had now returned to Community General
But still - five people had died.
Steve was very blinkered when it came to death. It was inherent in the job he did - a job he loved. Murder was something he could understand to a certain degree and the loss of life at someone else's hand was something he could do something about. He could pursue those responsible and get the victims the justice they deserved.
But death had a habit of sneaking up on you unawares - as it had so many years before with his mother, who had put up a lengthy battle against cancer before it finally claimed victory. Then there had been the occasion when both his father and Jesse had been existing in an 8-hour timeframe whilst he and Amanda frantically attempted to locate an antigen to the smallpox virus they had inadvertently contracted.
The Grim Reaper had been too close that time, grinning over his shoulder as he desperately sought the means to keep it at bay. They had been lucky. His dad and Jesse between them had figured out the clues and with Amanda's help had duped the man who had the antigen in his possession into giving it up.
Not a moment too soon.
His dad's symptoms had just started to appear by the time he had reached the beach house with the vial. Jesse, on the other hand …
Even now, that memory had the power to make him shudder. It was the last time he remembered seeing his young friend look so sick.
Pale, sweating, covered with the smallpox rash, his breathing laboured, Jesse had been comatose by this time, teetering on the precipice of death.
Steve had been convinced that he had been too late. But his young friend was nothing if not stubborn and had clawed his way back. It had been a close thing though and if Jesse had been at all aggrieved at being treated like glass for days afterward by both Steve and Amanda, he hadn't said anything.
And now this current virus …
Steve didn't know how to fight against something so all-pervading. All he had been able to do was pray and make promises to a god he wasn't sure he believed in any more - not after all the things he'd seen in his lifetime.
And He'd come through. Or at least, someone had. Now Steve had to keep all those promises and, as one involved him never yelling at Jesse again and another allowing him to have any kind of coffee he damned well wanted for 'Bob's' and hang the expense, he was now wondering if he hadn't been a little too rash.
Then he recalled the terror he had felt and realised that no promise was too hard to make, no price high enough to keep his friend here on Earth, where he belonged.

These thoughts occupied him completely as he made the journey back home and before he knew it, he was pulling into the yard of the beach house, where the outside lights illuminated the multi-hued paving stones with a welcoming glow.
"Dad, we're home," he said, in a low voice, nudging the older man slightly with his arm. "Dad!"
"Hmmm? Uh …. What?" Slow to come awake, Mark's eyelids flickered open and he stared round him, confusedly.
"Home," Steve clarified. "Bed. You. Now."
A slow smile drifted across the older man's face at Steve's words. When had their roles as parent and child reversed? Some time during the drive home, he suspected.
Ah well, he would let it go just this once. He was exhausted - the sleep he had obviously got in the car not even beginning to dent the fatigue that dragged at him. Fumbling a little for the door catch, he stumbled out of his seat, drinking in the slightly salty sea air before staggering toward the house, where Steve was already inserting the key into the lock in the door. "You staying up?" he mumbled as he made his way up the steps to the living room.
Steve shook his head. "Nah, I'm pretty tired myself. I think I'll head off to bed myself. I'll see you in the morning, dad."
The older Sloan smiled and started to move in the direction of his bedroom. He paused as he heard a hesitant 'Dad?"
"Yes, Steve?" he asked, half-turning to find his son regarding him with an anxious expression.
"Jesse is gonna be okay now, right?"
Ah. So that was the problem. Steve had probably been brooding all the way home, thinking about all the things he could have done to prevent the virus from reaching his friend. In reality, of course, he could have done nothing. Even Mark, a doctor, had been helpless, his only contribution to Jesse's survival his unwillingness to leave him and the prayers he had silently uttered whilst keeping his vigil at his friend's bedside.
But it was what Steve did - brood - and he did it very well. Mark had often reflected that if brooding had been an Olympic sport, Steve would have been a shoe in for the gold medal.
"He's going to be just fine, Steve," he reassured him. "In fact, he should be ready to move to a normal room in a day or so. You can come and see him there without getting all dressed up. I'm sure Jesse will appreciate seeing our faces again."
The detective nodded. If his dad was sure then he was convinced. But the other man's words had started him thinking about something else - something he hadn't even considered until just now. How terrified his friend must have felt waking up to discover his mentor and friend garbed in the protective gear. He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat, resolving there and then to see Jesse as soon as he was allowed to have visitors. His might not be the prettiest face that Jesse would see, but he wanted it to be the first.

Steve smiled as he stepped from the elevator. He was finally on his way to see Jesse. A court appointment the previous day had kept him from the hospital and he had arrived home very late. He had been testifying against a particularly vicious murderer, who had killed his wife, dismembered her and then disposed of her remains in a meat grinder at his factory. Forensics had finally proved he was responsible for her death by virtue of identifying the remains through DNA retrieved from flesh surrounding one tooth and a fingerprint at the scene, together with a large pool of dried blood which had been found at the house, proof that she had died there. Steve himself had made the arrest, whereupon the man had tried to shoot him. That had been several months ago and he had actually ended up in Community General to have the bullet removed from his shoulder.
Jesse had been on call that night and had shaken his head in mock dismay when Steve had been rolled into his treatment room. "Oh, Steve, not another girlfriend trying to kill you!" he had quipped. "What'd you do to Ellen this time? And please tell me she didn't call off the wedding. It's taken us long enough to find you someone who's vaguely normal ... well, at least not psychotic!"
The detective had growled at his oh-so-unfunny friend, partly because of the unintended slur against his fiance, citing the man he had tried to arrest as the shooter. This hadn't daunted Jesse's enthusiasm for his topic, however, and the ensuing argument had only ended when the young doctor had held up a particularly nasty looking surgical instrument and threatened to do a rectal exam with it.
Steve, wise enough to know when he was beaten and not entirely sure his so-called friend wouldn't actually carry out his threat, had surrendered.
Payback was still due, though and he had been coming up with possibilities during his journey to the hospital that morning.
Hmmm … Jesse would be staying at the beach house whilst he recuperated and everyone knew there was nothing he liked better than watching Steve's pay-per-view whilst munching on snacks that Mark had prepared …
So what better revenge than to cut him off from the former and take over the cooking duties from his father …?
He was still contemplating this particularly delicious form of retribution when he heard himself being hailed.
"Steve! Hey, Steve!"
Turning, he saw Jack heading toward him. As pleased as he was to see his old friend, he was more than eager to live up to his vow to be the first face Jesse saw that morning. Waving at the other man, he smiled and then continued on his way.
But Jack was not so easily deterred. Before Steve could move another foot, the other man was falling into step beside him, slinging a companiable arm around his shoulder. "Hey, buddy, what're you doing here?" he asked.
The detective didn't break his stride. "I'm here to see a friend," he replied, somewhat vaguely. "How're you doing, Jack?"
The roguish smile appeared. "Fine, fine. Everything's going just great. Couldn't be better, in fact. Hey, I'm off duty for an hour or so. How about we go get a cup of coffee and talk over old times?"
"I can't," Steve said. "I …"
"Ah, come on," wheedled the other man. "Ten minutes - fifteen, tops. What, you can't spare an old buddy some of your precious time?"
Steve wanted to point out that it wasn't his precious time he'd be wasting but that it belonged to his best friend, but thought better of it. "I can't," he insisted. "I have some place I need to be."
"Oh, come on," pleaded Jack, tightening his hold around Steve's shoulder. "What's so important that we don't have time to talk?"
"No, really, I …"
"Steve, Steve, we haven't had a chance to catch up since I got back! I didn't expect the welcome flags but this cold shoulder you're giving me …"
"I am not giving you the cold shoulder," Steve protested. "I just have to be somewhere."
The doctor's arm fell away and he stepped back as though stung, his mouth tightening into a thin line. "Fine," he snapped, all trace of good humour erased from his manner. "Well, be seeing you then."
"Jack …"
"No, no, it's fine," came the sharp interjection. Jack smiled humourlessly. "I'll see you later, Steve. Maybe." With that, he turned on his heel and strode back the way he had come.
Steve remained where he was for several minutes afterward, feeling strangely discomfited about the whole encounter. He wasn't entirely sure why. He hadn't intended to upset the other man but Jack's pushiness had irritated him. For all the other man knew, the person Steve was on his way to see could have been on his or her death bed - which thought induced a shudder as it had so very nearly been true - but Jack had arrogantly assumed that his wishes should come first. The doctor also hadn't even asked after his friend, which for some reason prompted alarm bells to go off in Steve's mind.
It was true that they hadn't had the chance to sit down and talk since the other man's return from Colorado, but Jack understood the nature of his job and knew Steve well enough to realise that the detective wasn't deliberately avoiding him.
Or did he?
It had been eight years since they had seen each other. A lot could happen in that time. Certainly a lot had happened in Steve's life and he was pretty sure that he'd changed at least a little in that period.
Obviously Jack had to have changed as well.
Although, strangely, he had seemed just like the old Jack - charming, confident and slightly overbearing.
Steve reluctantly came to the conclusion that they didn't really know each other any more - and theirs had never been the closest of friendships in the first place.
So was there really anything so wrong in Jack's obvious desire to rekindle and perhaps strengthen their relationship?
It was just … his sheer persistence had made Steve slightly uneasy and he couldn't quite figure out why.
He wasn't going to figure it out in the next ten seconds either, he realised, as he glanced at his watch and was slightly shocked at how much time had passed since he had arrived. Tabling the problem of Jack for the moment - he would seek out the other man later and apologise for his behaviour and maybe get that coffee he had been so eager for - he resumed his journey to Jesse's room.

The young doctor wasn't alone when Steve got there - much to the detective's chagrin. Amanda was there, regaling him with gossip about some of Community General's more colourful characters. She was in the middle of a story about a certain Puerto Rican nurse and a rather over-enthusiastic and somewhat clumsy intern when Steve knocked on the door and entered the room.
"Hey," he greeted them both.
Two sets of eyes turned toward him as he shut the door, two beaming smiles greeting him as he approached the bed.
"Hi there," Jesse said, cheerfully. He was sitting up in bed, looking a hell of a lot healthier than he had the last time Steve had seen him. He was still a little too pale and new lines of strain on the still youthful face spoke eloquently of his recent ordeal. Still, the older man felt a tension he hadn't been aware of drain from him at the bright smile. "Amanda was just telling me about Wayne and Nurse Hernandez."
"Sandy," corrected Amanda with a snigger.
Jesse snorted - it was obviously an in-joke. "Right, Sandy!"
"How're you feeling, Jess?" enquired Steve, settling himself on the bed beside his friend and shaking his head in mute exasperation. These two people were supposedly adults and yet sometimes they behaved no better than a couple of giddy children. The irony of this observation, considering that his last conversation with Jesse had taken place in the heat of a sauce bottle battle was lost on the detective.
"Better," the young doctor told him. "Itching to get outta here."
The words prompted an abrupt change in Amanda as Jesse's co-conspirator disappeared and 'Dr Bentley' took her place. "Yes, well, young man, you just rest and do as you're told and maybe - maybe Mark will release you in a couple of days," she said, firmly.
"Couple of days?" Jesse cried in a plaintive voice. "Aw, Amanda …!"
Mustering her sternest expression, Amanda turned it on the young doctor. Jesse immediately subsided, folding his arms across his chest and pouting, before sliding a sly glance toward his other friend.
"Steve, tell her!" he pleaded.
The detective raised his hands. "Uh-uh. No. No way, pal! You're on your own in this one! No way am I getting into the middle of a battle with your doctors!"
"Amanda isn't my doctor. She's Mark's informant," muttered Jesse rebelliously.
"Jesse Travis!" exclaimed the pathologist, managing to sound aggrieved and amused at the same time. "How can you say that?"
"Cuz it's true?" offered Jesse, with a winning smile toward the young woman.
She narrowed her eyes, but there was amusement sparkling within the hazel depths. "You're impossible," she scolded him, although her tone belied her words.
He shrugged, the smile never wavering. "But you love me anyway," he retorted mischievously.
There was no answer they could give to that one. At least not without either lying or fuelling his ego. So, exchanging a conspiratorial glance with Amanda, Steve leaned forward to ruffle the young man's blond hair.
"Hey!" came the immediate protest as Jesse tried to duck out of his friend's way. "Quit that!"
"Annoying you is it?" asked Steve, casually.
Blue eyes narrowed as Jesse glared at him and the little pout became even more pronounced. Then a snigger came from the other side of the bed and the young doctor's head whipped round to face Amanda. "I hate you both," he muttered, not very convincingly.
"There, there," Amanda comforted him, reaching out to quickly run her own fingers through the by now thoroughly dishevelled blond locks, giggling as Jesse instantly recoiled from her too, fixing her with his best glower. "Doesn't Doctor Jesse like having his hair tousled, then?"
"No, 'Doctor Jesse' doesn't!" he retorted, aggrieved. "So cut it out - the both of you!"
By mutual, silent consent his two tormenters obediently stopped teasing him. He was looking tired, they both noted, his complexion slowly changing from pale to grey.
"We're sorry, Jesse," The pathologist planted an affectionate kiss of apology on the top of his head. "It's just - we don't often get a chance to get you where we both want you - where we can torment you to our heart's content. It was just too hard to resist."
Jesse's scowl faded just a little at the twin expressions of contrition on both faces. They seemed genuine enough, although that 'torment' line was a little much … "Yeah, well, just … next time, try, okay?" he grumbled.
Amanda grinned as she discreetly helped to ease him back down in bed, pulling up the covers and flicking them over him with professional ease. "I'm not sure I can promise that," she said, in a low voice. She kissed him softly on the cheek. "But maybe whilst you're stuck here you can plot your revenge."
His eyes lit up at that and a slow smile appeared on his face. "Yeah. Maybe I can at that!"
He wasn't going to be able to stay awake for much longer. They could both see that. His eyelids were drooping and although he was making a valiant attempt to fight against it, sleep was beginning to overpower him.
"Go to sleep, sweetheart," Amanda whispered in his ear. Her voice was low and gentle and soothing, having been honed from years of persuading small children to do likewise. "We'll come back later, okay?"
"'Kay … " he mumbled, as his eyes finally drifted shut. "See ya later … guys .."
"Yeah, see ya later, pal," said Steve, softly, smiling fondly down at the younger man as he finally succumbed.

They studied him for several minutes, neither of them wanting to be the first to leave. It had been like this after the smallpox scare all those years before, too. Steve remembered one night in particular - the day after Jesse had been given the antigen - when he had sat for hours beside him, just watching him whilst he slept. He had tried on several occasions to leave but as he was about to rise to his feet Jesse would mumble something under his breath, he would bend down to try to catch what he was saying and then he would sink back into the chair at his bed.
His father had found him there at dawn, and they had shared a few quiet moments gazing down at the peacefully sleeping form. There had been something almost holy about that morning, with the sun rising over the ocean, casting its pale glow on the room, Jesse's pale, pert features outlined by the lambent radiance.
He couldn't remember a time when Jesse had not been in their lives.
And yet such a time had existed.
And Jack was back at Community General to remind him of that fact.
Steve smiled a little sadly at the thought.
Jack and Jesse.
As different as chalk and cheese.
Would he have sat at Jack's bedside like this?
Would he have been so terrified of losing him if he had been so desperately sick?
The answer was starkly obvious.
And it made him feel a little uncomfortable.
Jack would never be to him what Jesse had so easily become in such a short time.
And that also made him feel a little sad.

A few minutes later, the two friends finally made left Jesse's room, Amanda closing the door softly behind her.
"He's putting up a good front," she said, quietly.
Steve frowned, peering over her shoulder at the slumbering occupant of the room. "I thought he was getting better? He looked a lot better."
"Oh, he is," she assured him. "But, Steve, that virus took a lot out of him. And his energy was already badly depleted from all the extra shifts and his other extra-curricular activities. He was even covering for you at 'Bob's' … not that that was your fault," she hastily added as a horrified expression crept over his chiselled features. "Steve, Steve, you know what he's like. He's a workaholic - although he plays just as hard. But he has a strong sense of responsibility and .."
"He saw it as his responsibility to cover all the extra shifts here for the doctors who were out because he's head of the ER and then cover all of my shifts at 'Bob's' because we're part-owners," Steve finished for her in a heavy voice. "I know, Amanda. You don't have to remind me. He nearly worked himself to death."
"But he loves what he does," she reminded him, gently. "You know that. And you also know that part of why he loves it is because of who he gets to be with."
Steve nodded, aiming an affectionate smile in the direction of his slumbering friend. "Yeah, us," he said. "We're a team, Amanda."
"I know."
"I just … this time we came close … I don't want to go through this again."
"Well, I'll be sure to tell Jesse that," she quipped. "I'll just order him never to get sick again and he most certainly can never die."
He gave her a withering look. "Yeah, if you could, please," he retorted, dryly. "That'd be great."

Jack had wandered into the doctors' lounge after he had stalked away from Steve. He was seething and it reflected on his face, in his narrowed eyes and thinned out mouth.
Mark glanced up from his coffee and the paper he had been reading to smile at the other man, but his cheery greeting died before it could be spoken at the scowl darkening the other man's normally pleasant features.
"Jack?" he queried. "What's wrong?"
The other doctor had been so immersed in his own dark thoughts that he hadn't even realised anyone else was in the lounge and was startled at Mark's words. He recovered quickly, though, forcing a smile - although it was far from convincing. "Nothing, Mark," he replied, tightly. "Everything's great. What could possibly be wrong?"
"Well, something obviously is," commented Mark, astutely. "You look like you've just lost your best friend."
Jack uttered a brief, harsh laugh. "Maybe I have," he said, cryptically.
Deflating a little at the older man's concern, the dark-haired man poured himself a cup of coffee and came to sit beside his older friend. "It's Steve," he confessed.
Mark frowned. "Steve?" he echoed, perplexed. "What about him?"
"I just saw him, Mark - for the first time since I got back, might I add - and all I got was a 'oh, hi, Jack, bye, Jack' from him."
Mark shook his head. "That doesn't sound like Steve. He was happy that you were coming back. He must have been distracted by something - maybe the case he's working on? Did you ask him what he was doing here?"
"Yeah," said the other man heavily. "He said he was on his way to see a sick friend."
"Oh." Now it all made sense to the older Sloan. His son had expressed his desire to be Jesse's first visitor of the day once his dad had informed him that the young doctor had been moved from ICU to a regular room. Once Steve got an idea into his head it was pretty difficult to sway him from it. Besides, they had had a close call with their friend this time and he knew Steve was eager to put his own mind at rest regarding Jesse's condition.
But he didn't know how to tell Jack this without making it seem like Steve was playing favourites. The younger doctor had not met Jesse yet - although Mark was convinced that once he did he would like him. Everyone liked Jesse. Until such time, however, Jack would see him as some kind of usurper, taking his rightful place within their small group. Mark knew how Jack's thought processes worked and he was painfully aware of his own careless treatment of the other man when he had first arrived back. That had also been attributable to Jesse and Jack knew that.
The young Italian man was probably building up a seething resentment to the Jesse and that was the last thing Mark either wanted or needed.
The older doctor was dragged out of his contemplation with a start, and found himself looking into concerned brown eyes. "I'm okay, Jack," he assured him, with a smile. "I was just …"
"Thinking?" guessed Jack. "Yeah, you looked like you were miles away."
"I was," the other man admitted, ruefully. He sighed, wrapping his hands around his own coffee cup, trying to come up with an explanation for Steve's behaviour which would not further aggravate Jack, nor further alienate him from the young man he had yet to meet. "Look, Jack, Steve - I'm sure it was nothing personal …"
"It sure felt personal," interjected Jack, a little bitterly. "I mean, I haven't seen him for eight years, dammit. I expected a little more than just 'I'm busy.'"
"You know Steve," Mark commented. "Once he has an idea in his head …"
"Yeah, yeah. I know." A huge sigh escaped the dark haired doctor. "And I know people change over the years but … I don't know. Maybe I was expecting too much?"
The older man shook his head. "I don't think so. You were expecting to come back and fit right back in as though you'd never been gone. It's a natural desire. But it's not often too realistic."
That prompted a wistful smile. "Yeah, tell me about it. LA has changed beyond all recognition; Amanda has two kids and I've had to throw my little black book away. All my old girlfriends are either married or have moved away."
"You've tried to contact them all already?" Mark couldn't keep the surprise from his voice.
Jack shrugged indifferently. "I had a few hours on my hands. Still, you haven't changed," he went on. "And I didn't think Steve had either. Course, then again, according to Amanda, he has a fiancé now."
A proud smile illuminated Mark's craggy features. "He does that. Ellen. She's away on assignment right now. We'll introduce you when she gets back - if you promise not to make a move on her!" he teased.
Jack smirked. "I can't promise that, Mark!" he retorted. "You know what it's like - women are drawn to me. I can't help it if I'm irresistible!"
Chuckling, Mark shook his head in mock despair. "What am I going to do with you?"
The young man shrugged good naturedly and took a sip of his coffee.
Mark regarded his friend fondly, even whilst he reflected that the other man's joking remark was not entirely made in jest. Jack had always been something of a 'babe magnet' as he had heard it termed somewhere. The young doctor had dated more than his fair share of pretty nurses at Community General during his time there. There had also been a number of models, actresses and a gorgeous personal trainer. One woman in particular stood out in Mark's memory - a kindergarten teacher, she had not been Jack's usual 'type' at all. She was beautiful, true, but she had also been smart, witty and intelligent. Definitely a match for the young man. The older doctor had harboured a secret desire that she would be the one that would prompt his friend to settle down.
Sadly, like all the others, their relationship had fizzled out before it had really even begun. Mark often wondered what had happened to her.
"Mark! Hey, Mark!"
"What?" He returned to earth with a start, to discover his companion regarding him with open amusement.
"I lost you again," Jack declared. "What were you thinking about?"
The older man shrugged. "Oh, just reminiscing," he replied, vaguely. "So, has there been anyone special since you've been away?"
"Nah, no one." The other doctor's grin faded as he stared disconsolately down into his coffee. "I guess I just can't seem to find that 'special someone'."
Instinctively, Mark reached over to pat him on the arm. "Well, don't give up, Jack. She's out there - somewhere. You'll find her," he consoled him.
"Yeah?" Bleak hazel eyes met his then the morose mood vanished, replaced once again by the disarming grin. "But in the meantime, I'm having a lot of fun just looking!"
Mark had forgotten just how mercurial his friend could be. It had certainly been a challenge keeping up with his many different mood swings in the old days. It looked like Jack hadn't changed at all during the last eight years.
The rest of them, on the other hand …
Absently, he glanced down at his watch, sighing heavily as he realised he was going to be late for a Board meeting. "I'm sorry, Jack," he apologised, as he rose to his feet. "I have to go. Meeting with the Board."
Jack grimaced in sympathy. "I bet you must miss ol' Norman," he commented, recalling how it had been the ex Administrator's job to tackle the old fuddy duddies who ran the hospital and liked to interfere in its smooth running as much as possible.
Mark nodded. "I do," he agreed, a little wistfully. "Norman had his moments, but he was a good friend - to me and to this hospital."
"Well, go get 'em, Mark," teased Jack. "Don't let 'em get away with anything."
That earned him a grateful smile. "I'll do my very best," Mark vowed.
Then he was gone.
And Jack, alone once more, returned to his brooding.

Forward to part two

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