Disclaimer: DM and its characters belong to CBS and Viacom… I'm just borrowing them for a bit…


By Ann Rivers ann.rivers@virgin.net

This couldn't be happening. This nightmare couldn't be happening to him. It just couldn't.
But it was. Unintentionally, of course - clearly something he wasn't meant to hear.
But it was happening…
"Steve, he's only trying to help… he doesn't mean any harm… he just wants to be involved…"
"I know that, dad, but… well, there's a pretty fine line between involvement and interference, and…well, to be honest with you, dad, Jesse tends to cross that line more times than I'm comfortable with…I mean, did you see what happened yesterday, when he opened that box and took out those letters…? As it turns out, they had nothing to do with my investigation, but what if they had been…? What if those letters had been the key evidence that we'd been looking for to nail this creep, only to have the case thrown out because of illegal tampering…?"
"Yes, son, I see your point… fond as I am of him, he is… well, I must admit, he is rather a handful…if not for my skates, I don't know how I'd keep up with him…!"
"Yeah, so I'd noticed… maybe I should have a root round the garage, see if I can find a pair for me…at least then I'd stand a chance of getting away before he starts bugging me…!"
Dear God, they were laughing at him now ! Hearty laughter, too… at his expense.
He didn't know what shocked and hurt him more - that mocking laughter, or what he heard next.
"Seriously, dad, I feel real bad about saying this… like you say, he doesn't mean any harm, but… well, there's a lot riding on this case… I just can't risk Jesse blowing it by soiling evidence…"
"Okay, son, leave it with me… I'll have a word with him, and…well, keep him out of your hair…
after all, I'd hate to see you turn grey before your time, like I did…!"
As Steve smiled and nodded in gratitude, Mark glanced towards the door of his office and frowned - feeling an oddly unsettling sensation that he was being watched through its narrow opening.
But the corridor outside was completely clear… that flash of paranoia seemingly groundless.
Wryly thinking he'd been spending far too much time around crime scenes, Mark shook his head - pushing those concerns to the back of his mind as he settled back to discuss Steve's latest case.
If he'd bothered to check, however, he would really have seen something to worry about -
his new protégé, Jesse Travis, shuffling along the corridor… utterly shattered by what he'd just heard.
Within a few seconds, this simple errand for Amanda had turned his entire world upside down.
For the first time in his life, he'd found two people who'd come to genuinely care about him.
Strangers who'd provided him with something his own parents had been unable, or unwilling, to give.
Something he'd yearned for his entire life - the loving support and solid foundation of a real family.
Until two minutes ago, he'd thought he'd finally realised that dream. But now, though… now…
Still reeling from this cruel betrayal, Jesse headed instinctively to find a source of steadying comfort.
Mark and Steve may have brought his dreams crashing down, but at least he still had Amanda.
Except he didn't…

Instead of offering him the welcoming, friendly smile that he so desperately needed to see,
Amanda Livingston greeted his unscheduled entrance with an irritable sigh of exasperated patience.
"Oh, Jesse, how many times do I have to tell you…? When my door is closed, you need to knock…!"
As Jesse stared at her, totally mortified, Amanda then sighed once more and tiredly shook her head, breathing hard while pointing a bloodied glove around five sheeted gurneys which surrounded her.
"You see these, Jesse…? It's a family, wiped out by some moron of a driver who skipped a red light. Father, mother, and three kids… all killed because this idiot didn't want to miss his ballgame… And you know what gets me, Jesse…? He comes away with nothing worse than a broken leg…! And you know what his first words were when he came out of surgery…? Did the Lakers win…??!!? He wipes out an entire family, and all he cares about is some stupid damn ballgame…!"
Left even more shaken by this senseless tragedy, Jesse stared helplessly back at her, sharing her pain - moved by his own doctor's compassion to try and offer his colleague some words of comfort.
"Oh God, Amanda, I - I'm so sorry… do you need anyth…? I - I mean, is there anything I can do…?"
He'd expected at least a smile - some sign of gratitude for his offer of help.
Instead, to his dismay, Amanda's irritation only increased as she glared at him, snapping her reply. "What I need, Jesse, is peace and quiet… and privacy… to get this finished so I can go home…!"
Seeing him flinch, noticing the raw pain in his eyes, both her expression and her voice softened a little. "Look, Jesse, if you have a problem, go to Mark… I just don't have the time right now… okay…?"
Not trusting himself to speak, Jesse simply nodded while backing timidly back towards the door - pausing there to glance behind him, staring in shock as this nightmare took another, brutal turn.
Snapping off her gloves to answer the phone, Amanda greeted her caller with the same brusqueness - the scowl on her face instantly melting into the delighted smile that Jesse had so much needed to see.
"Jack…! Oh, what a lovely surprise…! Well, pretty busy at the moment, but… oh no, don't be silly… ! I always have time to talk to you, you know that…! So how's Denver…? And that lovely skiing…!"
Settling into her chair for a good long chat, Amanda didn't notice her office door quietly closing - or Jesse's ashen, stricken face staring in on her, before he turned and walked slowly away…

Come the next morning, three friends met as usual for breakfast - each puzzled by an unusual absence.
"He's probably overslept, as usual… or else he's surfing…" Steve mused, shrugging his shoulders - taking advantage of that person's absent, notorious appetite to enjoy another helping of bacon.
"Still, at least that means there's some left for us… for once…!"
"Or maybe he's working out whatever was bothering him yesterday…" Amanda said thoughtfully, not yet understanding the puzzlement on Mark's face as she cast an apologetic smile towards him. "I'm sorry if I palmed him off on you, Mark, but… well, with that RTA, I just didn't have the time…" As Mark continued to frown, Amanda's smile faded slightly, her conscience suddenly niggling at her. "He did come to you yesterday, didn't he…? Only he was definitely upset about something…"
"No, honey, he didn't… in fact, I didn't even see him leave last night…" Mark replied, still frowning.
Now this really was odd. It had become something of a tradition for them to 'keep an eye' on Jesse. As Steve had wryly commented, 'that kid could cause chaos and find trouble in an empty room.' He was an endearing boy, though… someone that you just couldn't help but feel drawn to. And Mark had felt genuinely touched that Jesse would always come to him for some fatherly advice. Now he didn't know what bothered him more - the suggestion that Jesse was in some sort of trouble, or the fact that his new protégé hadn't come to him for help to get out of it.
Then again, he dryly reflected, young Jesse Travis had a stubborn, independent streak a mile wide. No, Mark decided to himself, if Jesse had a problem, he'd confide in him when he was ready. Until then he'd just keep a discreet eye on the boy, so that whatever was troubling him didn't escalate.

As the morning progressed, however, so this seemingly easy task became more and more difficult.
In contrast to the previous day, where he'd tagged eagerly at Mark's heels, Jesse was oddly elusive.
Even the doctors' lounge, his most frequent haunt besides the trauma rooms, yielded no sign of him.
On the few occasions where Mark did track him down, he remained quiet and unsettlingly withdrawn, replying to Mark's concerned questions over whether he was alright with a terse, mumbled "Fine…"
Amanda fared no better - her attempts to coax him into talking met with the same sullen brusqueness.
By lunch-time, this complete change in Jesse's character was causing considerable concern.
"He's around ten years too late for it to be his first teenage tantrum…" Steve mused over his coffee - a wry glare towards his father persuading Mark to keep his own son's trials of growing up to himself.
Pulling a face back at him, Mark then grew more serious as his thoughts returned, inevitably, to Jesse. "Well, something's obviously upset him… something he doesn't want to talk about…" he said at last - relieved to see Steve and Amanda nodding agreement, to both the problem and his suggested solution. "And since he clearly doesn't want to discuss it with us… well, let's just leave him to it…"

Yet even as he settled back with his coffee, Mark frowned as he glanced towards the lounge's door.
Damn, there it was again…! That unsettling feeling of being furtively watched.
This time he did get up, crossing to the door to see if these pangs of paranoia were justified.
The sight of Jesse hurrying around the corner offered him no answers. Just more puzzling questions…

Mark was still trying to find some of those answers as he, Steve and Amanda returned to the lobby -
a familiar, totally unexpected voice pushing those concerns once more to the back of his mind.
"Yo, guys…! Jack's back…!"
He certainly was. Dr Jack Stewart, Mark's former protégé, stood grinning broadly back at them - feigning hurt as Mark, Amanda and Steve all stared at him, stunned by his unexpected appearance.
"Hey, what's the matter…? Ain't you glad to see me…?"
First to recover her composure, Amanda broke into a delighted smile as she rushed over to hug him - Mark and Steve following on behind, greeting their long time friend with the same open affection.
"Of course we're glad to see you… not to mention surprised…!" Amanda enthused, gently scolding.
"Why on earth didn't you tell me you were coming when you called me yesterday…?"
Still hugging Jack, she didn't see the slight frown of realisation that had appeared on Mark's face - that familiar expression which meant that he'd started to guess what had upset Jesse the previous day. "Hey, I wanted to surprise you…" Jack grinned, smirking now as he took in their still stunned faces. "And I'd guess I've succeeded…!"
"You certainly have…" Steve chuckled - equally oblivious to his father's oddly serious expression. "So what brings you back to LA…? Want your old job back…? I'm sure dad wouldn't mind…"
"Well, now that you ask… why…? Is my replacement that bad…?" Jack asked, still grinning.
"Well no, he's not so much bad as just kinda… well, eager…" Steve replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Imagine a hyperactive puppy wearing a white coat and stethoscope, and… well, you get Jesse…"
He'd meant it as a joke, of course - and it certainly provoked much laughter from Jack and Amanda. Mark wasn't laughing, though… instead he just smiled distractedly, his thoughts still with Jesse. He could only be grateful that the boy hadn't been there to hear Steve's albeit light hearted jibe. With the mood that Jesse was in at the moment, Mark doubted that he would feel much like laughing.
Movement in the corner of his eye caused Mark to turn to see it fully, and he winced in dismay - catching the briefest glimpse of Jesse's stricken face before the elevator doors closed between them.
Fatherly loyalty to his son regardless, Mark couldn't let Jesse stew in the hurt of Steve's teasing.
Excusing himself with the believable call of rounds, Mark hurried to the elevator that Jesse had taken, taking another to follow his young friend down to the basement car lot.
As the elevator doors opened, Mark hurried out and glanced round, searching for that familiar car - another wince of dismay creasing his face as Jesse's blue VW swerved alarmingly out into the street.
Groaning aloud, Mark then sighed and shook his head, taking the elevator back to rejoin the others. He'd been planning to invite Jesse along to dinner that evening, hoping to coax him into opening up.
Suddenly, though, that didn't seem such a good idea…

For Jack's sake, Mark kept his concerns over Jesse to himself as they regrouped later for dinner. It was, after all, meant to be a happy evening together to celebrate Jack's visit.
Even so, he still couldn't forget the expression on Jesse's face as those elevator doors had closed - the hurt betrayal in the boy's eyes, shadowed by the inevitable simmering anger at that betrayal.
And while Amanda was too distracted by Jack to notice it, his pensive quietness wasn't lost on Steve.
"Everything okay, dad…?" he asked, glancing quizzically at his father as they made some fresh coffee. "You've been real quiet all night… mind you, Amanda's done enough chatting for all three of us…!"
"To be honest, son, I've been thinking about Jesse…" Mark admitted quietly, turning to face his son - careful not to make his next words sound too reproachful as he turned to face his son and smiled. "He overheard what you said about him in the lobby… you know, comparing him to a puppy…? I know you meant it as a joke, son, but… well, I think he's already upset over Jack coming down…I guess he feels… well, a little left out… maybe even jealous… after all, Jack was here a long time…and he knows how popular and respected Jack was, so he knows how tough it'll be to replace him…" Pausing to check on the coffee, Mark then sighed and shook his head, clearly exasperated. "Mind you, unless his attitude improves soon, even I'm going to start losing patience with him…!"
Clearly surprised by his father's words, Steve then nodded, although he didn't offer any reply.
Instead he turned back to rinsing his coffee mug, Jesse's treatment of his father niggling at his mind…

Mark had hoped that a quiet night mulling things over would lessen some of Jesse's resentful anger - enabling him to talk to his young friend the next morning, to try and find out what was wrong.
Again, though, as with the previous morning, Jesse Travis clearly did not want to be found.
And with Mark tied up with his teaching classes, there was little chance for that quietly discreet chat.
Finally, though, the inevitable had to happen.
As Mark entered the main lobby, the subject of his thoughts emerged from the treatment room,
too engrossed in writing up his latest notes to notice the very person he did not want to see.
And after another morning of successfully avoiding him, this time Jesse Travis had nowhere to hide.
By the time he looked up and saw Mark approaching him across the lobby, it was too late.
Their eyes met - and in just those few moments, Mark realised that his earlier hopes were fruitless.
Far from lessening, Jesse's resentment towards them had, if anything, grown even deeper.
Instead of its familiar bright and breezy grin, Jesse's face held an uncharacteristic, glowering scowl - the normally friendly blue eyes darkened now, with a depth of anger that hardened them into cobalt.
Mark felt himself wince. There was one hell of a rift growing between himself and his young protégé.
A rift which, as Mark now worriedly reflected, he simply didn't know how to heal.
Hating discord of any kind, Mark offered him a reassuring smile while attempting to pat his shoulder - his eyes widening in startled surprise as Jesse shoved his hand away, his eyes now livid with fury.
"Get away from me, Dr Sloan… you hear me…? J - Just leave me alone…!" Jesse snarled,
bitterness and resentment radiating from him as he slammed his casenotes down onto the nurses' desk.
Before Mark could recover enough to reply, Jesse snatched up his latest file and strode away again - a final, seething glare over his shoulder defying Mark to follow him.
Still totally thrown by Jesse's behaviour, Mark stood in the lobby, now more worried than ever.
He'd found Jesse Travis to be one of the friendliest, most level headed young doctors he'd ever met. And with his gentle, cheery nature, he'd become a firm favourite with both patients and nurses alike - the same nurses who now stared across at Mark, sharing his shock at Jesse's extraordinary outburst.
Now, though… well, Mark simply didn't know what to make of this sullen, irrational behaviour.
Of course, he'd seen many new interns burn out under the stress and pressure of the job, but…
well, he'd never imagined that Jesse Travis would be one of them.
Was he pushing the boy too hard…? Trying to develop those extraordinary skills of his too quickly…? Had he gone to Amanda for help, but found himself turned away instead because of Jack Stewart…? That at least might explain part of this increasingly worrying puzzle - why Jesse was so angry.

As a still shaken Mark returned to his office, the pieces of that puzzle were starting to fall into place - forming a sadly familiar, worrying picture which Mark could only pray was wrong…
Inevitably, Community General's grapevine was soon buzzing with news of this astonishing bust up.

After hearing how his father had been treated, Steve was understandably livid with the young doctor. And while Mark may have felt some understanding towards Jesse, the same couldn't be said for Steve. So when Steve saw Jesse alone in the doctors' lounge, slumped on the couch, the result was inevitable.
Striding across to him, Steve grabbed hold of his arm, roughly pulling the startled Jesse to his feet. "Damn it, Jesse, what the hell's the matter with you, treating my father like that…?" he demanded, the fury in his eyes in stark contrast to the fear in Jesse's as he tried in vain to escape Steve's grip. "Is this what this attitude of yours is about…? You're ticked off at my father because of Jack…? Because if it is… well, I think that's pretty pathetic…! You're twenty four years old, Jesse, not five…! An adult, for God's sake, not some petulant kid…! So just grow up, okay…? Damn well grow up…! You want to be treated like an adult…? You want us to like you…? Respect you, like we do Jack…? Then just grow up…! Start acting like an adult, and maybe we'll start treating you like one…! And if you ever treat my father like that again, Travis, then so help me…!!"
Dangerously close to that threat, Steve then released Jesse and shoved him back down onto the couch, casting the wide eyed, visibly shaken young doctor a final furious glare before striding away from him.
Struggling to catch his breath, Jesse then staggered to his feet, stumbling into the adjoining restroom - barely making it into the cubicle before he was violently, and lengthily, sick…

Two hours later, Jesse Travis had to face a threatening temper of a different, utterly massive kind.
An injured biker, six foot eight inches of drunken gristle and muscle, had been admitted from an RTA.
And in his inebriated state, he'd convinced himself that trainee nurse Meg White was his biker-mate.
"Aww, c'mon, hon… j - just a little widdle kiss…?" he slurred, puckering his lips at the terrified girl. "C'mon, sweetcheeks…! Ya know ya wanna…!"
Although no taller than the visibly flustered nurse beside him, Jesse now stepped to her rescue.
Still smarting from his altercation with Steve, he was determined to regain some of his self respect - prompting him to do something which was both incredibly brave and dangerously reckless. "Hey, c'mon, take it easy…" he said amiably, placing himself between Meg and her leering admirer. "Leave our nurses alone, and let me take a look at this head wound, okay…?"
"What's it to you, runt…?" the biker growled, sneering down at the tiny young doctor before him. "You got the hots for her, or somethin'…?"
Reining in an already fragile temper, Jesse forced the smile back onto his face and shook his head - stubbornly keeping his ground, shielding Meg behind him as the biker tried again to grope her. It was one hell of a show of gallantry - but that gallantry was to come at one hell of a price.
Already formidable strength fuelled further by drink, the enraged biker grabbed Jesse by the throat, strangling his cries of protests as he lifted the young doctor several clear feet off the ground. Smirking at the helpless, terrified Jesse through a sneer of utter disdain, he then lifted him higher - shaking him, toying with him, tightening his stranglehold until the frantically wriggling body fell limp. Hoisting him above his head, the biker then threw Jesse with brutal force across the nurses' station, leering with sadistic glee as the young doctor went crashing into the side of the main reception desk - his entire body contorting from this massive impact while he cartwheeled down the desk's other side, a chair partly breaking his fall before he finally landed in a sprawled, motionless heap on the floor.
For several, stunned seconds no one moved - least of all the crumpled, battered form of Jesse Travis.
Then all hell broke loose - several newly arrived security guards wrestled the biker to the ground, while a small army of doctors and nurses, including Meg, rushed to tend to Jesse.
Unsurprisingly, Jesse still lay where he'd fallen, sprawled across the chair which had broken his fall. He'd landed on his right side, which had also taken much of the initial impact against the desk A spreading pool of blood seeped out from under his head, while his right arm lay bent beneath him - its bloodied, distorted hand causing head nurse Kate Palmer to curse as Meg recoiled in horror. She knew there was only one kind of injury that could leave a hand positioned as unnaturally as that.
On top of already horrendous injuries, Jesse Travis' right wrist had suffered a devastating fracture - an injury which, she knew, could have equally devastating consequences for the young intern's career. If the blood supply to his hand was cut off for any great length of time, he'd lose the use of it - an event which, given his hopes of making trauma surgery his specialty…
So it was with immeasurable care that Jesse, his neck and arm now immobilised in protective splints, was now gently lifted onto a gurney and, flanked by several doctors, rushed to an already alerted OR.

Mark was in the doctors' lounge, taking a break with Steve and Amanda, when the call came in,
his pager shrilling urgently for his attention.
Reading its message, his eyes widened in shock, his face ashen as he met two pairs of anxious eyes. "Jesse's been attacked by a patient… he - he's badly hurt…" he finally explained, clearly shaken - already running out of the lounge, the others following close at his heels.
Guided by more paged details, they headed immediately for the theatre viewing gallery for OR3 - all three staring down in horrified dismay at the scenes of urgent activity below.
Jesse was already prepped for surgery - a tiny, vulnerable figure beneath a mass of sterile sheeting. Now, as the anaesthesiologist began to put him mercifully under, Jesse's eyes flickered briefly open - trying to focus on three distant, blurry figures watching him from the gallery above.
The full effect of the anaesthetic then mercifully hit his system and Jesse's eyes drifted closed again - memories of how deeply and devastatingly those three people had hurt him locking deep into his mind.
Then everything inside that mind went very very cold… and very very black…

The voices sounded odd, as though they were calling him from the end of a very long tunnel.
Disjointed voices, urgently calling him… calling his name… calling him over and over again.
They were familiar voices too, ones that Jesse felt he should know… ones he should try and answer…
Something in his throat, though, something painfully uncomfortable, made it impossible to do so.
Damn it, he couldn't even breathe, because of this wretched thing in his throat…!
He could do nothing about it, though, except to struggle against the hands that gently restrained him, whimpering in protest against the revolting device which remained lodged deeply into his throat.
Then a strange, irresistible heaviness came over him and Jesse drifted back into a refuge of darkness, to a place safely away from those persistent voices and the torture they seemed to be inflicting on him.
When that darkness eventually lifted again, that torture seemed to have thankfully eased a little. It, whatever it was, remained firmly lodged in his throat, but at least it didn't hurt quite so much now. It was uncomfortable, for sure, not to mention damn annoying… and, it seemed, it was there to stay.
One of those strange, distorted voices was still there too - still calling him, more gently this time.
"Jesse…? Easy now, son, everything's going to be alright now… just rest easy, Jess, it's all over…"
Son…? Had that voice just called him son…? Then it had to be his father calling him…!
Except… no… no, this voice was deeper, gentler… not as clinical as that of his estranged parent. To Jesse's frustration, though, the voice was already growing fainter again, fading into the distance - yielding, as Jesse now reluctantly did once more, to that crushing, unstoppable wave of blackness.


Sitting at Jesse's bedside, Mark released a long held breath, rubbing a weary hand over his eyes. Then he glanced up to meet his son's equally tired eyes with an equally frustrated shake of his head. "I'm sorry, son, I really thought he'd made it that time… damn, he was so close…!" he said at last, glancing sadly to where Jesse Travis lay deeply comatose once more, fighting desperately for his life.
Steve just nodded - trying his best, despite his own worry, to offer his father a reassuring smile.
"He'll make it, dad…" he said quietly, turning back to gently squeeze Jesse's cold, lifeless hand.
"He's going to come through this thing, dad… he just has to come through this…"


Jeez, these voices were persistent…! Every time he woke up, there they were, still calling his name.
They seemed more familiar to him now… more normal too, not quite so disjointed.
It was gone too, finally… enabling him to breathe freely, if rather painfully, on his own again.
His throat was still achingly sore though, grazed raw from whatever had been lodged so deeply into it.
But at least the damn thing was gone now, allowing him to try and respond to those mysterious voices.
Easier said than done, though, as the only sound to come out of his mouth was a hoarse, feeble croak.
It was too painful for him to try again, so instead Jesse tried to open strangely uncooperative eyes.
Eventually succeeding, he then tried to focus them on three hazy faces that hovered beside him, struggling through a fog of crushing tiredness to recognize who those faces were.
When that recognition finally came, it was all Jesse could do not to scream in frustration.
Damn it, why couldn't they just leave him the hell alone…?
Mark Sloan was talking to him now, smiling that rattlesnake smile as he leaned in closer.
"Jess…? Jesse, can you hear me…? It's me, it's Mark… easy now, Jess, you're going to be alright…"
He'd been at Jesse's bedside, on and off, for over twenty hours now, trying to get the boy to respond.
That response, when it finally came, was one he'd half expected… and wholly dreaded.
The sedatives had tempered it a little, but that same distrustful resentment was still in Jesse's eyes. Those long hours spent watching and waiting for Jesse to wake up had, it seemed, been utterly wasted.
"Jess…?" he asked softly, making one last, desperate attempt to find a way through that resentment, to the gentle and compassionate young doctor who'd come to mean so much to him.
But no. The normally warm blue eyes remained glacially cold as Jesse turned his head away from him, staring at the opposite wall in a simple yet highly effective display of defiance.
The message was painfully clear to all of them, and it was one they now equally sadly obeyed -
each casting Jesse a glance of frustrated disappointment before quietly leaving his room.
Jesse's next awareness was a shaft of sunlight striking his eyes through the window of his room, rousing him from what had been a restless, fitful sleep.
Instinctively he tried to shift himself away, trying to raise his right arm to shield and protect his eyes - screaming in startled shock at the brutal, unbearable pain which seemed to explode along its length.
His cry was loud enough to be heard in the corridor outside, bringing Mark running to his side. Through a red mist of pure agony, he could feel himself being carefully coaxed into someone's arms, held cradled there in comforting gentleness while Mark tried to calm and comfort him.
"Easy now, Jess… it's alright, I've got you… just try to ride it out, son, that's it, try to relax now… imagine that you're out on your surfboard and just ride it out… that's it, son, you're alright now…"
In too much pain to argue, Jesse did as told, allowing Mark to gently hold and comfort him -
gritting his teeth against each swell of agony until at last, that tidal wave of pain began to subside.
Still sobbing with pain, Jesse then slumped back into Mark's arms, his entire body shaking.
A stray tear leaked out from under still tightly closed eyes, dribbling wetly down the side of his face.
Dear God, he'd never experienced pain like that… not even when his appendix had ruptured.
What the hell had happened to him…?
Something cool and soothingly wet came to rest across his forehead, followed by Mark's gentle voice. "Easy, Jess… easy now, just try to lie still… Amanda, there's some chipped ice in that jug up there… can you get some for me…? And close that window blind too, please, while you're there…"
A few seconds later a spoon pressed against his mouth, gently coaxing him to swallow its contents. Two shivery spoonfuls later, Jesse felt strong enough to gingerly open his eyes, squinting around him.
The still concerned faces of Mark Sloan and Amanda Livingston smiled gently back at him -
those smiles widening into grins of outright relief as Jesse managed a weak nod of acknowledgement.
There was still no smile, though, or even words of gratitude for their comfort… but it was a start.
With the ice finally thawing, if not entirely broken, Amanda then reached to gently take Jesse's hand - trading another hopeful smile with Mark as Jesse lay quietly, offering no resistance to her comfort.
His eyes were still wary, but confused now rather than angry as Jesse glanced curiously around him - those eyes widening slightly at finding himself lying in a hospital bed, his body swathed in bandages.
Whatever he'd done to land himself in this latest mess, he'd clearly made one hell of a job…
But it was, inevitably, his still heavily bandaged right arm which caused him the most fright.
Seeing this, feeling Jesse stir restlessly against his arms, Mark gently hugged him to settle him down - meeting Jesse's curious but thankfully resentment-free stare with a reassuring, calming smile.
"I know it looks pretty awful, Jess… you suffered multiple fractures through your wrist and forearm, and a minor nick to your right lung from a broken rib… but it's okay, you're going to be just fine…"
He'd spoken so gently, and so kindly, that Jesse frowned - not sure what to make of this turnaround. He wanted so much to trust these people… these friends who'd become more like family to him. They seemed to genuinely care about him, even… well, yes, even seemed to love him too, as family. They'd hurt him so deeply, though… taken that dream which meant so much to him and shattered it - breaking it as cruelly as that arm, resting in a mass of gauze and bandage on a pillow beside him. And so that sense of mistrustful resentment continued to niggle at a still traumatised, vulnerable mind. Memories of how he'd suffered such a horrendous injury were starting to come back to him too now, causing him to wince, shifting restlessly once more against Mark's cradling arm.
"Easy, Jess… it's alright, the brute that did this to you is safely behind bars…" Mark soothed him, frowning slightly as he followed the boy's suddenly frightened eyes towards the doorway of his room. Why was Jesse was now staring up at his son like a deer caught up in a car's headlights…? And why was Steve looking back at him like that, with the same expression of deep unease…? Something had clearly happened between them - something that Jesse was in no state yet to face. Motioning for Steve to stay put, Mark then gently patted Jesse's shoulder, regaining his attention. "Well now, Jesse, we'd better let you get some rest…we'll come and check in on you later, okay…?"
Giving his shoulder a final, comforting pat, Mark then rose to his feet and rejoined the others -
Jesse's curious, utterly confused blue eyes following them out as they left his room.

The following morning, Mark was hoping that he could continue the slow thaw from the previous day. After a long chat with Steve, he now knew why Jesse had looked so shaken when he'd seen him. Amanda had come clean too, guilt stricken now for not talking to Jesse when he'd so clearly needed to. Now it was time to clear the air. Time for some gentle, family fence-mending.
The initial signs were encouraging - to Mark's surprise, Jesse was already awake when they arrived, a faint but still very welcome smile greeting him as Mark came to sit beside his bed.
Not surprisingly, he remained wary of Steve, who kept a tactful unthreatening distance by the window. Amanda, though, was granted another weak smile… and a gentle kiss of apology on his forehead - one which brought a flush of welcome colour into still pale and drawn cheeks.
"Well now, Jess, how are you feeling…?" Mark asked at last, still smiling at the boy's embarrassment. "You're certainly looking a lot better than you did three days ago…!"
That won him a wide eyed stare of open surprise as Jesse realised just how badly injured he'd been.
"Th - Three days…?" he finally stammered, in such alarm that Mark hastened to reassure him.
"You've been under sedation for much of that time, Jess…giving that arm a chance to set and heal… and with that lung to remember too, we needed to keep you still to… well, avoid complications…"
Pausing for a moment, trying to gauge the boy's mood, Mark then smiled and added gently,
"We were still with you, Jess…even though you knew nothing about it, we were here… all of us…"
He'd placed just the slightest emphasis on it, but that single, gently stressed word seemed to work.
Jesse lay quietly considering that word for several moments while glancing occasionally up at Steve - seeing for the first time how tired he looked from what had clearly been an anxious three days. In fact they all looked tired, Jesse mused, casting a suddenly guilty glance around him.
There was still a trace of uncertainty to it, but Jesse finally offered Steve a tentative, hesitant smile - one which was very happily, and broadly returned as Steve now came to stand at his bedside,
giving Jesse's hair a gentle, brotherly ruffle while leaning in closer to offer a soft, heartfelt apology.
"I'm sorry, Jess…blowing up at you like that was inexcusable… I won't do it again, Jess, I promise…" A weary nod and even wearier smile forgave an openly relieved Steve Sloan for that indiscretion. But another now stole in to take its place - one made all the more devastating by what Steve said next. "There's just one thing puzzling me, Jesse… I mean, showing some chivalry is all well and good, but… well, I saw this guy myself in the holding cells, and even I would have needed back up to tackle him…! My God, Jess, you could have been killed…! Why on earth did you take him on alone like that…? Why didn't you wait for security to arrive…? They're trained to handle stuff like that, not you…!"
He'd meant it as gentle teasing - and it was something which Mark and Amanda clearly agreed with. But in Jesse's still fragile, vulnerable mind, it was yet another rebuke. Yet more criticism against him. More proof that these three people, people he loved and needed so much, simply could not be trusted.
Dear God, they'd not even noticed how much Steve's teasing had upset him…!
"I rather think Jesse's learned that the hard way…" Mark agreed in the same gently rebuking tone - his smile fading slightly as the rueful reply he'd expected to hear failed to arrive.
Instead Jesse had closed his eyes, clenching them shut against the frustrated tears welling beneath.
Assuming this sudden silence to be from lingering tiredness, Mark patted a tense, tightly balled hand. "You look tired, Jess…we'll be back later, so you just get some rest now, okay…?" he said gently - frowning slightly, but thinking no more of it, when Jesse simply nodded in reply.
Closing the door quietly behind them, Mark, Steve and Amanda then headed for the doctors' lounge - none of them hearing the muffled sound of piteous crying which they'd left behind…


Steve Sloan woke with a start, groggily wondering what was making that peculiar, pitiful noise.
His eyes then widened, staring in puzzled surprise as he stared down into Jesse's pale, lifeless face.
Tears were streaming out from the sides of still tightly closed eyes, trickling onto the pillows below, while Jesse's left hand had suddenly closed around his, clenching itself in an unexpectedly fierce grip.
They were the first signs of life he'd seen in six days - prompting Steve's equally lively, excited shout. "Dad…! Amanda…! You'd better get in here…! I - I think he's finally coming out of it…!"


They'd left him earlier that day, completely unaware that anything was wrong.
All that changed, however, when Mark and Steve returned to Jesse's room later that evening.
He'd been sleeping when they'd last checked in on him, his face buried into a tightly hugged pillow.
Now, though, his bed was empty, its sheets still tumbled. But Jesse was nowhere to be found…
Leaving room 218 far more hurriedly than he'd entered it, Mark rushed over to the nurses' station - confused concern for his young friend lending an edge to his voice that gained immediate attention.
"Where's Dr Travis…? He's not in his room, and he's meant to be resting…!!"
"I'm sorry, Dr Sloan, but Dr Travis discharged himself two hours ago…" one of the nurses replied, glancing round at her colleagues before offering the dumbfounded Mark an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Dr Sloan, but… well, I assumed that you knew…!"
"Well, as you can guess, nurse, I didn't…!" Mark snapped, glaring from one puzzled nurse to another. "If I had, I would have refused to discharge him…! My God, he's just had major surgery…! He's barely fit enough to get out of bed, let alone be discharged…! Why didn't you stop him…? Or at least page me so that I could come up here and find out what was wrong with him…?"
"We did try to stop him, Dr Sloan…" the nurse replied, rattled herself now by Mark's sharp tone. "And we wanted to page you, but Dr Travis assured us that you knew what he was doing…besides he was determined to leave… and since it was his decision, there was nothing we could do…" Before Mark could reply, or object, she passed across a small envelope, scrawlingly addressed to him."He asked us to give you this, though… he said you'd understand…"
With Steve hovering at his shoulder, Mark ripped the envelope open and anxiously read its contents.
The note was short, untidily scrawled in Jesse's unnatural left handed writing.
But its message was simple. Clear. And devastating…
Sorry to have been such a burden… tell Jack his old job's here if he wants it… goodbye… Jesse…
"Oh my God… no…!" Mark whispered, in horrified realisation of what those words meant.
At best, they meant that Jesse had run away, unable to face whatever had been troubling him before.
At worst…
Equally horrified, Steve was already running for the nearest elevator, his father close on his heels…

Both of them had keys to Jesse's apartment, of course, so that they could get into it in an emergency.
Finding it locked from the inside, with the key still in the lock, and with no response from inside,
Steve had no choice but to vehemently kick down Jesse's door, hurriedly following his father inside.
The scene within was every bit as shocking as they'd feared. Every bit as unthinkable…
In a room eerily dimmed from drawn curtains, Jesse Travis lay slumped unconscious across his couch. At first, he looked merely to be sleeping - the youthful face smooth and untroubled, utterly peaceful. But the emptied bottle of painkillers beside him told a wholly different, horrifying story.
At just twenty four years old, with his whole life ahead of him, Jesse Travis was committing suicide…
Whatever had triggered this unthinkable act now flew to the back of Mark's mind as he ran forward - kneeling at Jesse's side, praying that he'd find a pulse while Steve dialled shakily for an ambulance.
It was there - nothing more than a faint flutter against his fingers, but Jesse's pulse was still there.
His breathing, though, already laboured from broken ribs and that injured lung, was starting to falter.
Jesse's chest was jerking now, heaving with effort to breathe… then it stopped moving completely.
"Oh God, Jesse, no…!" Mark pleaded, pulling his young friend down onto the hard, unyielding floor.
As a horrified Steve watched helplessly on, Mark cleared Jesse's mouth and covered it with his own - an expression of utter panic spreading across his face as that feathery pulse also fell still.
"No… no, Jess, you can't do this…!" he whispered, vehemently shaking his head as he began CPR - his voice growing stronger, almost angry while he kept frantically trying to revive his young friend.
"Jesse, you have your whole life ahead of you…! You can't let it end before it's even started…!
Damn it, son, I won't let you die like this, you hear me…? Now starting fighting, Jesse…! Come on…! For God's sake, Jesse, start fighting…! You have to come through this, you hear me…! Come on…! Damn it, Jesse, wake up…!! Come back to us, Jess, please…!! Jesse…? Jess…??!!?! Jesse…!!!!"


"Jesse…? Come on now, son, you've got to wake up…! Jesse, it's Mark… can you hear me…? Jess, if you can hear me, just squeeze my hand… come on now, Jess, squeeze my hand…!"
Go to hell… Jesse thought bitterly, still trapped in the nightmare of his delirious subconscious.
Damn it, why the hell couldn't you have just left me alone…? Why couldn't you just let me die…? I mean, it's not like you ever cared about me… it's not like you ever really cared…
But it was not to be. Somehow they'd managed to revive him, wrenching him from his sanctuary.
And however hard Jesse fought, however determined he was to return to that carefree world,
Mark Sloan was fighting even harder, even more determined to make sure that he didn't.
"Keep that pure oxygen coming… now that the antivenin's taken effect, it'll help him come round… start another unit of serum… and keep the defibrillator standing by, just in case he crashes again… we thought we'd brought him safely back the last time…"
Antivenin…? Why the hell have they given me antivenin to counteract an overdose…?
The oxygen was starting to hit his system now, dispersing that choking shroud of grogginess.
Jesse could feel the intubation tube again, lodged uncomfortably securely into his throat -
ensuring that nothing stopped that precious flow of oxygen from reaching his lungs.
He'd intubated other patients, of course, but now he was on the receiving end of that unyielding tube.
And Jesse Travis was rapidly deciding that he didn't like being intubated…
"Whoa, Jesse…! Easy now, lie still…!" Mark urged, trying to restrain his feebly struggling patient. "No, Jesse, you need to lie still…! It's alright, you're safe now… but you must lie still…!!"
Okay, Mark, you want me to lie still…? Then get this damn tube out of my throat…!
Somehow those subconscious prayers were answered as Jesse heard the familiar clicks of switches, the steady whoosh of oxygen gradually lessening then dying completely as the ventilator shut down.
It took a few moments for his lungs to adjust, but eventually Jesse managed a shaky, spluttering gasp - coughing instinctively against the tube which remained chokingly lodged in his windpipe.
Then Mark's voice spoke again, soothingly guiding him as Jesse struggled again to breathe normally. "Okay now, Jess, you know the drill… a really good deep breath now, and cough…! That's it…! Attaboy, Jess, keep going… keep it going, you're nearly there… that's it, Jess, it's clear now…rest easy now, Jesse, we're just going to put you back on oxygen through this mask, okay…? That's it, son, just rest easy for me now, it's alright… easy now, Jess, it's okay… it's all over…"
Still coughing and spluttering, Jesse slumped back into solid, comforting warmth behind him -
vaguely aware of soft, comforting fingers brushing gently across his forehead, stroking back his hair.

Then the owner of those fingers spoke softly to him, her tone just as gentle… just as soothing.
"Jesse…? Jesse, honey, it's me… it's Amanda… it's alright now, Jesse, you're going to be alright… I know you've been somewhere so dark and frightening and lonely, honey, but you're safe now… you'll see that for yourself, if you just open your eyes and wake up… please, Jesse, please wake up…"
She'd hurt him too, of course. In the nightmare of a delirious mind, they'd both cruelly betrayed him. And Jesse was still trapped in that nightmare, still too seriously ill to separate it from reality.
So in spite of all their pleas and entreaties to rouse him, Jesse's eyes remained firmly closed -
genuine exhaustion taking him away from them once more… back into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Watching him settle, Steve then glanced up at his father, unable to hide his frustrated disappointment.
"He's still extremely weak, Steve…" Mark said at last, smiling gently up at his pale, haggard son.
"Even though he's now out of the coma, his system's been through a hell of a lot these last few days… Jesse needs to sleep now, to give that system a chance to recover, to get some of his strength back… hopefully by the time he wakes up again, he'll be strong enough to respond to us…"
From where he sat behind Jesse's shoulder, gently supporting his young friend, Steve nodded wearily. Ever since this nightmare had started, six days ago, he'd barely moved from Jesse's bedside. Six days of anxious watching and waiting for his friend to waken from this long, death-like coma - watching him struggle through two terrifying crashes to fight off that snakebite's deadly poison.
Now, at long last, his friend was starting to recover, yet Steve couldn't help but feel disappointed. All those long and anxious hours, waiting for this moment - yet Jesse didn't even know he was there.
His father's voice, a gentle pat on his shoulder, then roused Steve from still deeply worried thoughts.
"Come on now, son, you really need to get some rest now… don't worry, he's over the worst of it…come on now, you're exhausted… if you don't get some rest soon, you'll be in the bed next to him…!"
That won him a wryly tired smile as Steve nodded while gently settling Jesse back into his pillows - giving his sleeping friend's hair a final, gentle ruffle before rising to his feet, stretching as he did so. The thought of a long hot shower and some much needed sleep was one that he heartily welcomed.
Casting Jesse a final, protective glance, he then followed Mark and Amanda out of the ICU -
happier in the knowledge that Jesse's recovery from this nightmarish ordeal was finally under way.

When Jesse woke the next morning, however, Steve and his father received the shock of their lives.
They'd expected him to be disoriented - after all, he'd spent the last six days deeply unconscious.
And he'd been feverishly restless as he'd come round, as if in the grip of a terrifying nightmare.
But they could never have expected to see the bitterness, or the fury, which they saw in Jesse's eyes.
Far from being relieved and grateful, Jesse's reaction towards them was one of startling hostility.
"Damn it, why can't you just leave me the hell alone…?" he demanded, his voice shaking with anger. "Why couldn't you just let me die…! Damn it, I wanted to die…! Why the hell didn't you let me…?"

With Steve too shaken to do so, it was left to an equally stunned Mark to try and calm Jesse down. "Jess, you know I couldn't do that…! I couldn't let you die… not when I care so much about you…!"
Far from calming him down, though, Mark's words only made that inexplicable anger worse.
"Damn it, Mark, don't patronise me…! Stop lying to me…! You - You don't care about me…!
All this kind and caring stuff is a crock, you don't care about me…! You've never cared about me…!"
Mark was getting really worried now - and not just from Jesse's increasingly irrational behaviour.
The boy was still dangerously weak, trying to draw on strength that he didn't even have -
as the increasingly erratic beeps from the heart monitor worryingly indicated.
If he didn't calm down, and quickly, he'd be risking a serious relapse… and if that happened…
"Jesse, that isn't true… I do care about you… I care about you very much…" Mark said at last,
trying again to settle his young friend while placing a gently restraining hand on Jesse's right arm -
only to step back, shocked, as Jesse screamed, writhing against him in apparent yet inexplicable agony.
"M - My arm…! Oh God, my arm…!" Jesse whimpered, still twisting in subconscious anguish - clutching the shattered hand which, in his fevered mind, now erupted in unbearable agony.
"My God, dad, what's wrong with him…?" Steve asked, openly shaken as he stared at his father. "Jess was bitten in the leg, not his arm…!"
"I know, Steve… but I don't think this has anything to do with the snake bite…" Mark replied,
offering his son a slight, reassuring smile as he gently fitted an oxygen mask over Jesse's face -
keeping it held there until Jesse stopped struggling and collapsed, still whimpering, into his pillows. "Remember how restless Jesse was as he came round…? That crying you saw earlier yesterday…? I think Jess was having a severe nightmare… one where, somehow, he's badly injured his arm… and in that hallucination, for some reason we've hurt him too… so much that he doesn't trust us… he's still so disoriented and traumatised, Jess thinks he's actually living that nightmare for real… hopefully this oxygen will help bring him out of it…"
As Steve nodded in still shaken understanding, Mark then turned his attention back to Jesse -
feeling much of his own concern ease at seeing some welcome colour return to that deathly pale face.
He was still clearly distressed, though, in spite of Mark's hand soothingly stroking his forehead -
and it was several anxious minutes before his eyes, still stricken with anguish, flickered open.
In reality, Mark had simply been trying to calm him, protecting him from a potentially deadly relapse.
But in the nightmare of Jesse's imagination, his once trusted mentor had turned brutally against him - prompting a weak but heartfelt gasp of furious, bitter hatred.
"Y - You bastard…!"
Although visibly shaken by this outburst, Mark's rising concerns were still very much with Jesse.
The heart monitor was now going haywire as his young friend grew more and more agitated.
Whatever Jesse thought of him, for whatever reason, he had to calm the boy down, otherwise…
Jesse was still glaring furiously up at him, still clutching the arm he was convinced was injured -
and this now gave Mark an idea, some hope to find a way to bring his young friend back to reality.
"Jess… Jesse, please… please listen to me…" he said at last, doing his best to keep his voice calm. "I'm not trying to hurt you… please believe me, Jess, I'm not trying to hurt you… I never could…Jesse, you've been hallucinating… you've been having a nightmare, one where you've been hurt… and that nightmare was clearly one where we hurt you too, very badly… but it's over now, Jesse… you're okay now… and whatever I said, or did to hurt you in that nightmare, never really happened…" As Jesse remained seethingly unconvinced, Mark took a deep breath while nodding towards his arm. "Jess, if you don't believe me, look at your arm… go on, look at it…! See…? It's perfectly alright…!"
Jesse continued to glare up at him, but eventually something compelled him to do as he was told - whatever outburst he'd planned to say next becoming lost in a puzzled, bewildered silence.
All the bandaging was gone… instead of being shrouded in gauze and stitches, his arm was… normal.
Even when he gingerly prodded it, trying to find the injuries he was still convinced would be there, all he found instead was a slight graze to his elbow… surrounded by soft, smooth, unblemished skin.
As Jesse gave his arm another cautious prod, Mark cast his still anxious, puzzled son a relieved smile -motioning for him to keep quiet while their young friend continued this slow return to reality.
Something else was puzzling Jesse now - his arm wasn't hurting, but his right leg certainly was…!
Thanks to the oxygen that was slowly clearing his mind, it was starting to come back to him now - a real life nightmare every bit as terrifying as the mental torment he'd just experienced.
Glancing once more at that graze on his elbow, Jesse then frowned as memory continued to return. Fragmented images of hiking along a mountain path with Steve, laughingly urging him to catch up. Of ground giving way beneath his foot, grazing pain along his elbow as he'd tumbled downwards…a strange rattling sound next to him as he'd finally landed, dazed and winded, on a narrow ledge…Steve's anxious, urgent voice yelling at him from above… yelling for him to lie perfectly still…more, louder rattling next to his ankle… and finally the horror of white fangs striking his leg…
"Oh - Oh God…!! Sn - snake…!" Jesse gasped, struggling once more but in pure panic this time - seemingly thinking the rattler was in the bed with him as he kicked frantically at the bedclothes.
"Whoa, easy now, Jess…! Easy now, it's alright…" Mark soothed him, gently restraining him - holding him, calming him down until the rapidly beeping monitor thankfully settled down again.
"It's alright, Jess, the snake's gone now… it's alright, you're safe now… easy now, it's okay…"
After several anxious moments, Jesse thankfully calmed down, slumping back into his pillows -
what little strength he'd had now utterly spent from those struggles and his earlier irrational outburst.
Eventually his eyes flickered open again, dull and glazed from pain and a now crushing tiredness.
But to Mark and Steve's open relief, there was now a trace of lucidity there amid the exhaustion - recognition, at last, that the nightmares and terrors of his mind really were over.
Memories of that nightmare still remained, though… so did memories of that last, furious outburst - causing Jesse to wince in shamed dismay, his expression totally mortified as he stared up at Mark.
"Oh God, Mark, I - I'm sorry…! What I called you back then, and… and… everything I said, and…"
To his astonishment, Mark was actually smiling at him, comfortingly squeezing his hand.
"Jess, you've been seriously ill… in a coma from that snake bite for over six days…" Mark said at last, giving his young friend another gentle, reassuring hug as Jesse's eyes widened in frightened alarm. "You've had a hell of a rough time coming out of it, maybe even had a reaction against the antivenin…that might well explain the nightmares, and the delirium you've had since you came round…so whatever you said to me earlier… however you acted… well, you can blame that on the meds…"
Those meds were clearly catching up with him now as Jesse continued to stare awkwardly up at him. "S - So you - you don't hate me…?" he finally whispered, barely able now to keep his eyes open - those eyes now turning to stare up at Steve, squinting up at his friend through a thickening darkness. "You - You're not mad at me for yelling at your dad…? You're - You're still my friend…?"
At any other time, Steve might have laughed, or teased his friend over making such a remark.
It was as if Jesse were a child again, tearfully making up with his playmate after a playground spat. Now though, realising that his young friend was still in shock, deeply traumatised from his ordeal, Steve perched himself at Jesse's side and slipped a gentle, brotherly arm around Jesse's shoulders. "No Jess, of course I'm not mad at you… worried sick maybe, but no… I'm not mad at you…"
In spite of his reassurances, Jesse still clearly felt that he needed to say more, to apologise further - but the darkness around him was even thicker now, too overwhelming for him to resist it.
Finally yielding to that crushing exhaustion, Jesse closed his eyes then struggled to open them again - the fearful uncertainty within them prompting another smile from Mark as he stroked Jesse's forehead.
"It's alright, Jesse, just go to sleep now… it's alright, you're safe now… no more nightmares…"
Mark's smile then widened as he glanced up at his son, still sitting protectively at Jesse's shoulder.Steve was clearly as tired as Jesse - but equally clear was his determination to stay with his friend.And Mark knew once his son set his mind on something, very little could be said or done to stop it - especially when it concerned protecting his 'little brother.'
"Steve's going to be right here with you…" Mark went on, smiling gently back at his young friend - using the familiar comfort of his voice and the soothing touch of his hand to coax Jesse to sleep.
"That's it, Jess, that's it… attaboy, just close your eyes now… we can talk some more tomorrow…but for now, you really need to sleep… that's it, Jess, that's it… go to sleep now…"
If he'd not been a doctor, then Mark Sloan would have made a pretty impressive hypnotist.
After one last twitch of resistance, Jesse's eyes finally closed and he drifted into a deep, healing sleep.
Waiting until he'd completely settled, Mark released a long held breath while glancing at Steve - noting in great amusement that his hypnotist's voice had worked rather effectively on his son too.
If not for its protective sidebars, Steve might have been in real danger of falling off Jesse's bed.
He was still awake, though, gently tucking the bedclothes back around Jesse's shoulders.
Clearly appreciating his efforts, Jesse sighed while nudging himself more snugly into Steve's side - a drowsy smile spreading across his face as he settled back to sleep.
Watching him for a moment, Steve then met his father's amused eyes with a martyred roll of his own.
"If the guys at the precinct could see me now…" he sighed, casting Jesse a playful, brotherly glare. "I'd never live it down… from fearless police lieutenant to six foot two inch comfort blankie…"
Laughing now at the rueful expression on Steve's face, Mark then nodded fondly towards Jesse.
"Well, for what it's worth, son, I'd say Jesse's rather grateful for his comfort blankie…" he chuckled - nodding approvingly as he watched Jesse sleep, enjoying his now peaceful, untroubled expression. "Seriously, Steve, you're doing Jess more good than all these meds and the antivenin put together… he knows he's safe now… that all the time you're here with him, nothing more can hurt him…"
"Yeah, at least he's calmed down now…" Steve agreed, frowning slightly as he glanced at his father. "What do you suppose that nightmare was about…? I mean, I've never seen Jesse as angry as that…!"
"Yes, I must admit that shook me too…" Mark admitted, frowning too as he shrugged his shoulders. "As I said, it may have been an after effect from the antivenin… or even an out of body experience… hopefully by the time Jess wakes up, he'll be strong enough to tell us himself…"
Nodding his agreement, Steve then glanced back to watch over the snugly huddled bundle beside him. Whatever nightmare Jesse had suffered, Steve was determined to ensure it didn't torment him again.
Assured that his patient was in excellent hands, Mark gave Jesse a final, gentle checkover -
making sure that Jesse was comfortably settled before leaving him to sleep in peace.
Pausing at the ICU's doorway, Mark then glanced back to the peaceful scene he'd left behind.
It had shaken him deeply to see Jesse go through this ordeal… this desperate fight for his life.
And he'd sensed that difficult days lay ahead before Jesse could explain the cause for that nightmare.
But for now, sleeping peacefully under Steve's protective care, the boy didn't have a care in the world.
Smiling once more at this tranquil scene, Mark then left to enjoy some welcome sleep of his own.

After a shaky start, Jesse made a slow but unhindered recovery from his harrowing ordeal.
He still tired easily, though, which made it tricky for Mark to find out the cause for his nightmare.
Then two days later, the inevitable happened - Jesse Travis got his appetite back.
That appetite was notorious. For Jesse to go six hours without food was unheard of, let alone six days. So while no great fan of hospital catering, it seemed for once he was prepared to make an exception.
With Jesse still seemingly sound asleep, Steve headed for the cafeteria for a pot of fresh coffee - leaving his sandwich unwisely unguarded, within reach, on Jesse's bedside table…
Returning several minutes later, with a refilled pot in one hand and a plate of apple pie in the other, Steve re-entered Jesse's room to enjoy his lunch - only to find that Jesse had beaten him to it. As a mortified Steve watched at the doorway, joined now by a helplessly laughing Mark and Amanda, a hand emerged from behind the surfing magazine that rested perched open on Jesse's stomach. Homing in on its target, with an accuracy that fighter pilots would give their trigger fingers for, the hand, plus sandwich, disappeared back behind the magazine, followed by eager, happy munching.
Alerted by Mark and Amanda's laughter, and Steve's peeved mutterings of 'traitorous ingrate…'
Jesse put down his magazine and grinned happily back at them around a mouthful of sandwich.
"Hey guys…!" he greeted, that grin growing wider as radar-like eyes latched onto Steve's apple pie. "Oooooh, dessert too…??!!? Awww, Steve, you shouldn't have…!!"
"Would it crush you, Jess, if I told you I hadn't…?" Steve asked through a mildly exasperated sigh.
As Jesse stared up at him in plaintive, wounded disappointment, Steve just sighed once more.
Casting a baleful glare towards his still laughing father, he then, with familiar much abused patience, placed his shanghai'd dessert in Jesse's eagerly receptive hands before heading back to the cafeteria - Mark and Amanda's requests that they'd like some pie too met with another exasperated glare.
Beyond all the teasing levity, however, serious concerns still remained to be resolved.
So when Steve arrived the next morning and found Jesse picking listlessly at an untouched breakfast, he knew the time for fun and games were over. Instead, unseen by an oddly subdued, distracted Jesse, he closed the door quietly behind him and went to find his father.
They'd spent so much time with him that, when Steve, Mark and Amanda all arrived a short time later, Jesse saw little reason to question this sudden en masse arrival of visitors.
Steve, as usual, took his place at Jesse's shoulder, giving his friend a hug that was deliberately casual.
Jesse smiled back at him, grateful for his presence, yet unable to hide an awkward unease in his eyes. These people cared so deeply for him… had welcomed him into their lives with such love and warmth. So how could he think they'd ever turn against him…? What had triggered that horrific nightmare…?
Mark had clearly been asking himself the same thing, his smile gentle as he sat at Jesse's bedside - waiting there patiently until his young friend raised haunted blue eyes towards him.
"I - I'm sorry, Mark…" Jesse finally whispered, clearly upset and unsettled as he shook his head. "I don't know what came over me… just don't know why I could have lost faith in you like that…"
Jesse's words trailed away as he shook his head once more, lowering his head away from Mark's eyes.
"Well, Jess, you know how much I enjoy solving puzzles…" Mark replied, still smiling gently at him. "Why don't you let me help you solve this one…? It's alright, Jess, it doesn't have to make sense… just talk to me… tell me what happened, and… well, let me help you make sense of it… okay…?"
Smiling faintly back at him, Jesse nodded then falteringly began to describe his nightmare.
"I - I was here, in the hospital, and… you know when you're watching an old suspense movie…? Wh - Where everything looks normal, but… well, it isn't…? Things are just… well, not quite right…? Well, it was like that… all the corridors had this real weird dimness, like the power had gone out…" As Mark nodded encouragingly, Jesse managed a shaky smile in return before hesitantly continuing. "Anyway, Amanda was real busy with autopsies, so she asked me to bring you some files, and … well, when I got to your office, the door was open, and I - I could hear you and Steve talking… about a case Steve was working on, and… and you were saying how annoying I could be…how - how I kept interfering with trying to help on your cases, and… and spoiling evidence, and…and Mark said he'd keep me out of your hair so you wouldn't go grey because of me, and… and…" Falling silent once more, Jesse then cast an awkward glance towards an equally dismayed Steve. "Am - Am I really that annoying…?" he asked at last, again sounding like a plaintive, friendless child. "I - I mean, do I really bug you that much…?"
Glancing at his father for guidance, Steve then shook his head while holding Jesse gently closer.
"Oh God, Jess, no… of course you don't…" he said at last, trying to reassure his despondent friend. "In fact, I'd be more upset if you didn't help me out… you always find the important clues…!"
"I - I do…? Really…?" Jesse blinked at him, in such shy delight that Steve couldn't help but smile.

Again he wished he could tease his young friend - but this, he knew, wasn't the time to do it. Instead, trading another brief glance with his father, he gave Jesse another gentle, brotherly hug. "Jess, I'd never hurt you like that…" he added softly, still smiling but his voice totally serious.
"And even if you were bugging me, I'd tell you to your face… I'd never go behind your back, Jess… I think too much of you to betray your trust, or our friendship, as cruelly as that…"
"I know, Steve, that's… that's what I just don't understand…!" Jesse broke in, shaking his head again. "I mean, I know that you care about me, so… so why would I think that you'd turn against me…?" Before any of them could reply, Jesse sighed while running a hand through already tousled hair. "Maybe that snake venom went straight to my head and sent me crazy…"
"Actually, Jess, that isn't so unlikely as you might think…" Mark cut in, smiling gently back at him. "You were bitten by a Mojave rattlesnake, which has one of the most potent venoms known… so yes, along with the usual shock it invokes, that snakebite may have caused severe hallucinations…"
Jesse simply nodded - guessing from three still concerned faces just how close a call he'd had.
"Or - Or a near death experience…?" he asked at last with, all things considered, remarkable calm.
Clearly relieved by this, Mark smiled back and nodded while pouring Jesse a glass of refreshing water. "You were going through one hell of a rough time, Jess… both physically and mentally, and… well, in fact you suffered two full cardiac arrests while we tried to get your condition stabilised, so…yes, it's quite possible that your nightmare was triggered by that tremendous stress on your body…"
Jesse nodded once more, smiling his thanks for the gentle hug Steve had already sensed he needed. In a rather odd twist, finding out how close he'd come to dying had actually settled him down a little. As shocking as those causes were, at least now he could understand what had triggered his nightmare.
Refreshed still more by a long drink of water, Jesse then cast an apologetic smile towards Amanda - comforted by the knowledge that at least now she'd understand what he was about to say. "Af - After that, I went to see Amanda to… well, because I knew she'd listen to me and reassure me… but she was still busy with these autopsies and… well, she got real mad at me for barging in on her… I - I guess I do tend to do that… anyway, then she said she didn't have time to listen to me… then as I left there was a phone call from Jack and… well, suddenly she had all the time in the world… when I left her office, she was so wrapped up with Jack, I - I don't think she even noticed I'd gone…"
Pausing to collect his thoughts, Jesse then cast another, even more awkward glance towards Amanda. As he'd expected, she looked shocked by her alter ego's harsh attitude - but then she smiled gently, with the warmth and compassion which he'd needed, then and now, to see.
"Oh Jesse… that sounds so awful…" she said at last, reaching to tenderly stroke the side of his face. "But honey, I promise you that I will never, ever turn you away like that if you need to talk to me… no matter how busy I am, even if Jack should call me, I'll always have time for you… okay…?"
"'kay…" Jesse smiled shyly back at her, blushing still more as Amanda gently kissed his cheek.
While greatly relieved by this welcome progress, Mark knew that Jesse still had a long way to go.
Their assurances were clearly helping to settle him down, yet the boy's eyes were still troubled.
Many more difficult questions still had to be answered… traumatic fears still to be faced…
Waiting until Jesse had taken another reviving drink, Mark then cast him another encouraging smile. "What happened next, Jess…?"
Jesse's smile faded slightly, then strengthened again as Steve gave him a gently rallying hug.
"Well, everything just went downhill from there…" he said at last, ruefully shrugging his shoulders. "And I mean downhill…! I - I was so bitterly angry with all of you… just so hurt and angry that… well, I kinda lost my head, pretty much turning into the intern from hell… especially to you, Mark… I did all I could to avoid you… even when you managed to find me, I refused to talk to you… I was rude and sullen… I - I even lost my temper and yelled at you in the main lobby, and… well, generally did all I could to make your life as miserable as… well, you'd made mine…"
As he'd done with Amanda, Jesse then paused and glanced apologetically towards Mark -
clearly relieved to see the same blameless smile of understanding.
"By the sounds of things, Jess, I thoroughly deserved it…" Mark said at last, gently patting his arm. "No wonder you were so distrustful of me… the real me… when you came round from that coma…"
"Yeah, I - I guess so…" Jesse agreed, still frowning slightly though as he glanced up at Steve.
"Mind you, Steve didn't see it that way… after hearing how I'd treated you… oh boy, was he mad…! In fact he - he even roughed me over in the doctors lounge… then he tossed me back and left…"
Now it was Steve's turn to look stunned and dismayed by his alter ego's uncharacteristic actions.
Even though those actions had come from Jesse's fevered subconscious, he was still clearly shocked. Now he understood that odd question Jesse had asked when he'd finally come out of that nightmare - why his young friend had asked so shakily whether he was still mad at him…
"I actually threatened you…?" he asked at last, not giving Jesse a chance to reply as he added softly, "Oh God, Jess, I'd never do that…! No matter how mad I got at you, I'd never hit you…!"
"I know that, Steve…" Jesse assured him, re-affirming that trust in his friend with a gentle smile.
"Like your dad said, I wasn't exactly thinking straight when I dreamt all this…" Seeing that Steve wasn't entirely convinced, Jesse then reassured his friend as only he could. "Hey, does this mean I can annoy the hell out of you and never get cuffed…?" he asked brightly - pouting in disappointment as Steve narrowed his eyes at him in an equally playful glare.
"No, Jesse, it doesn't…"
Clearly enjoying this brotherly teasing, Mark glanced at an equally amused Amanda and winked.
Regardless of Steve's reaction, the return of Jesse's cheekily playful humour had to be a good sign. So was the familiar, rather long suffering smile which now crept reluctantly across Steve's face - as it always tended to do whenever Jesse pulled that bright eyed, cute kid brother trick on him.
After a shaky and awkward few days, things were finally starting to get back to normal.
Well, Mark thought fondly, as normal as things could get with these two around…
There was still work to be done, though… as Jesse's suddenly thoughtful expression clearly indicated. Prompted by Mark's gentle smile, and an encouraging nod from Steve, he then hesitantly continued. "After that, I had to deal with this biker who… boy, Steve, this guy made even you look puny…! Anyway he was making a real nuisance of himself, groping one of our new student nurses, and… well, before I know it, I'm confronting him… trying to keep this creep away from her, and…well, the next thing I know, he's picked me up and tossing me into the nurses' station…"
Jesse then fell silent once more, wincing slightly at the memory of his gallantry's very painful cost.
Just as they'd done in his nightmare, Mark, Steve and Amanda now all stared at him in utter surprise - each mentally picturing this tiny, modern day David bravely confronting a cruelly brutal Goliath.

When it finally came, Steve's reaction to that subconscious recklessness was eerily familiar. "You confronted him…? On your own…? Good God, Jess, what were you thinking…??!?"
Seeing the dismay in Jesse's eyes, Steve then winced too and gave his friend an apologetic hug.
"Sorry, Jess… I was forgetting, all this happened in a world where absolutely nothing made sense…!"
"Yeah, tell me about it…" Jesse muttered, pulling a face as he recalled 'dream' Steve's advice.
"From now on, I'll leave creeps like that to hospital security…I mean, real hospital security…!"
"Wise move, Jess…" Mark chuckled, turning more serious as he nodded towards Jesse's right arm. "I'm guessing that's how your arm got injured…? From being tossed across that desk…?"
"Yeah, it got pretty badly broken…" Jesse replied, glancing thoughtfully towards his right hand -
now unbroken and unscathed, resting comfortably across his stomach.
Before he could say any more, though, a loud rumble erupted, volcano-like, from that stomach - prompting much amusement as Jesse's face erupted too, in a deepening blush of embarrassment.
"Well, Jesse, I'd say that's a subtle reminder that you didn't eat your breakfast…" Mark said at last, this mock stern rebuke giving way to helpless laughter as Jesse stared plaintively up at him.
Fondly tousling his hair, Mark then rose from his seat and walked out into the adjoining corridor.
Jesse couldn't see what was happening, but the distant clatter of trays certainly sounded promising.
A few minutes later Mark re-appeared, grinning triumphantly as he placed a laden tray on Jesse's lap. "Maria's giving out today's lunches… and it so happens she had a couple of spares…" he explained, trading knowing smiles with Steve and Amanda as Jesse eagerly uncovered the nearest plateful.
Like so many others, their Italian chief cook had been instantly drawn to the cheery young intern.
From the moment she'd seen him, she'd embarked on a mission to fatten up that 'bellisimo bambino' - a task which, given Jesse's notorious love of food, should have been ridiculously easy. But no. Although he'd normally eat anything that wasn't nailed down, Jesse loathed hospital food.
It had to be said, though, that at the moment Jesse was showing no signs whatsoever of that loathing - an extra large bowlful of chicken soup disappearing with familiar, welcome speed.
With Steve's occasional 'help', a plateful of cannelloni and vegetables soon disappeared too,
as did a brotherly shared wedge of apple pie and cream.
Now, as Jesse settled contentedly back with another mug of coffee, Mark couldn't resist teasing him. "Well, I'd say that should keep Mount Travis from erupting again for… oh, at least five hours…!"
"That long…?" Amanda chipped in, laughing too now as Jesse glared peevishly back at them.
"Hey, I'm a convalescing patient…!" Jesse shot back, defending himself with typical ingenuity.
"And medical journals say that convalescing patients need regular meals to aid their recovery…!"
"I must have missed that issue…" Mark chuckled as Amanda grinned equally mischievous agreement.
Realising he wouldn't win this argument without back up, Jesse glanced plaintively up at Steve - guessing from the broad grin on Steve's face that, for once, big brotherly back up wouldn't be coming. "See if you get to share my lunch again…" Jesse muttered at last, glaring up at his traitorous friend.
Totally unmoved by that plaintive expression, Steve chose his moment before asking mildly,
"And whose lunch did you shanghai yesterday…? With, I seem to remember, no sharing at all…?!?"
Left with very little means of defence, Jesse became conveniently silent while he finished his coffee. "Well, it's not as if it had your name on it…" he said at last, defensively shrugging his shoulders.
"Oh, and that's your excuse…?" Steve countered, finding it impossible not to laugh as he added dryly, "So what do you suggest, Jess…? That we put little name flags on our food so we can tell its ours…?"
Always happy to join in this teasing, Amanda couldn't resist chipping in before Jesse could retaliate. "Well, in that case we'll need a lot of flags for Jesse…!"
"Yeah, and industrial strength nails for us…" Steve grinned, smirking wickedly at the hapless Jesse.
While thoroughly enjoying the entertainment, Mark still felt that some refereeing was called for - although with so many insults and counter insults flying around, it was proving tricky to keep score ! "Okay now, you two, that's enough… stop ganging up on your poor little brother…" he chuckled, laughing even more as three faces stared up at him - two in disappointment, the other in grateful relief.
It was good to Jesse smiling again, even though he'd been the butt of this familiar teasing.
Good, too, that there were no hard feelings as Jesse settled himself back against Steve's side -
that big brotherly teasing already forgiven and forgotten in favour of that big brother's comfort.
But then Mark saw the sudden strain in Jesse's eyes… noticed the telltale fading of his smile -
and he realised his young friend was still deeply upset by the horrors he was having to re-face.
Steve and Amanda had realised it too - both instantly serious again as Steve gave Jesse a gentle hug. "You okay, Jess…? I mean, we can finish this later if you're getting tired…"
To their surprise, and grateful relief, Jesse smiled back at them, albeit wearily, and shook his head . "No, Steve, I'm okay… just kinda… well, remembering… but no, I - I want to finish this…"
In spite of his renewed concern, Mark couldn't help but smile as he glanced up at Steve and Amanda. The return of that famous Travis stubborn streak was another welcome sign.
"What happened next, Jess…?" he asked gently, taking Jesse's mug back for another refill of coffee.
Smiling his thanks, Jesse took a steadying breath then quietly resumed his story.
"Well, at first everything seemed okay again… I - I mean, I still didn't think I could trust you, but… you were all so worried about me… staying with me till I came round from the surgery on my arm… I still acted like a jerk, thinking you'd all turned against me, but like I say, everything seemed fine…but then everything seemed to go wrong again… you thought I was stupid to have tackled that biker…you were even laughing at me, not caring how much you'd upset me, and that's when…when I…" Falling silent once more, Jesse glanced uneasily in turn at the three concerned faces around him - wondering how on earth they'd react to this next bizarre twist when he could barely face it himself. Knowing now that it had been a figment of a delirious imagination brought at least some comfort - as did the real, solid reassurance of Steve's arm tightening gently around his shoulders.
Taking another steadying breath, Jesse then falteringly revealed his nightmare's horrific conclusion. "M - My whole world seemed to be falling apart… you - you'd all hurt me, and… and betrayed me… Jack Stewart was all ready to take his old job back from me, and… and I just couldn't see a way out… so I - I discharged myself, left you a note then went home and I - I took an overdose…"
Three stunned faces stared back at him, in open mouthed shock from this unthinkable turn of events.
Of course none of it had actually happened, but Jesse had still gone through a horrendous experience - prompting a visibly shaken Steve to gently draw his friend into a long, tight, protective hug.
Mark, too, looked shocked as the full extent of Jesse's experience, and its implications, became clear. This hadn't just been a bad dream - it had been a revelation of Jesse's real, deeply disturbing fears. Fears and insecurities which, Mark now guessed, had stemmed from a troubled, unhappy childhood. Torn between a mother that he could never please, and an estranged father that he barely knew, it was a miracle the boy hadn't spent his later years in therapy instead of medical school.
Now here he was - one of the most naturally gifted young doctors that Mark had ever met.
And were his parents proud…? Well, his father hadn't even bothered to come to his graduation,
while his mother had left the ceremony half way through for a 'very important lunch date.'
Well, if his own parents couldn't appreciate just how special their son was, then that was their loss - and, Mark thought with a reflective smile, their loss has been my truly blessed gain…
Once Jesse was fully recovered, he'd tell the boy exactly why he cared about him so deeply.
Why he was so special… such a precious gift to the lives of Mark and Steve Sloan.
But for now, Jesse still had to deal with his own trauma… his own worst nightmare.
His near death experiences, both real and imaginary, were taking their inevitable toll on him now.
Jesse was still huddled in Steve's arms, scared and shaken, crying quietly onto his friend's shoulder.
Gradually regaining his composure, Jesse finally pushed himself away while wiping his eyes -
offering his still anxious friend a shaky smile of thanks before glancing self consciously around him. "I - I'm sorry…" he murmured at last, clearly embarrassed at breaking down in front of them . "Jeez, I feel like such a jerk…! I - I mean, it's not as if any of this stuff actually happened…!"
"Jesse, you've nothing to be sorry for…" Mark assured him, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"After a nightmare like that, and the trauma from that snakebite, no wonder you feel so shaken…! Like I said, you were having one hell of a rough time, both from that coma and the snakebite…so believe me, you've nothing to be sorry for… you're going to be okay, that's all that matters…"
That won him a shaky smile of appreciation, yet Jesse still looked unsettled as he shook his head.
"Thanks Mark, but… I - I still don't understand why I'd think you'd ever turn against me like that…! I mean, you've all been so good to me…! In fact, you've treated me better than my own family…!" Realising what he'd just said, Jesse fell awkwardly silent - expecting a typically gentle rebuke. Justified as it may have been, it was hardly wise to air his family's dirty laundry in public…

To his surprise, he found instead another wise and kind smile as Mark offered a typically cryptic reply. "Oddly enough, Jess, you've just answered your own question… and solved your own mystery…"
As he'd hoped, Jesse was now rewarding him with that familiar 'how did I do that…?' frown.
"I - I have…?" he asked at last, still clearly puzzled as he cast a suspicious glance towards his IV. Jeez, what the hell are they giving me in these meds…??!!?
Enjoying that so welcome expression, Mark then grew more serious as he thought out his reply - knowing that he was about to tread on uncomfortable ground. Jesse's bitterness towards his parents had dismayed him - but at the same time he could understand it. On the few occasions when Jesse did talk about his family, there was a deep sadness in his eyes - one which had made the Sloans, and Amanda too, all the more grateful for their loving upbringings. It was probably why Jesse had grown so close to them, valuing their friendships so highly. Why the thought of losing the stability of those friendships would be so devastating for him.
"Jess, I know that your childhood was pretty rough for you…" he said at last with a slight smile - gently squeezing Jesse's hand as his young friend stared up at him, his frown predictably deepening. "And I'm sorry that this is such a painful subject for you, but… well, it's also a very important one… one which I think is the key to what you've just experienced in that nightmare…"
"Y - You mean all this stuff with you turning against me is because of my childhood…?" Jesse asked, still staring at him with, to Mark's relief, curiosity in his eyes rather than the resentment he'd feared.
"Yes, son, I do…" Mark went on, smiling at the reaction which that simple term of affection invoked - the shy, delighted smile which Dane Travis had so sadly missed out on.
Enjoying still more the quizzical curiosity in Jesse's eyes, Mark then gave his arm another gentle pat. "I'm sure your parents never meant to hurt you, Jess… even though their divorce inevitably did…and they probably didn't realise just how severely their behaviour was affecting you…"
"Yeah, I spent most of the time in my room, trying to avoid their arguments…" Jesse said quietly,
smiling his thanks for the consoling hug which this, and his next equally quiet words, drew from Steve. "Of course, I know now that it wasn't, but… well, back then I thought it was my fault they broke up… that - that they blamed me for what was happening…"
"Well, as you say, Jess, you know now that it wasn't your fault…" Mark replied, smiling back at him. "But the consequences of those misplaced feelings of guilt and responsibility are still affecting you… and I'm guessing this is the first time that you've really talked about your parents' divorce…?"
"Well, yes… no… well, um… kinda…" Jesse admitted, blushing slightly as he shrugged his shoulders. "I - I mean, I went to a child psychologist a couple of times, but then the other kids found out, and… well, I soon found out those kids could hurt me just as much as my parents…"
Falling silent once more, Jesse then smiled slightly before he sighed and shrugged his shoulders again. "It was about that time I discovered my talent for sprinting…" Mark grinned proudly back at him, relieved at the return of that familiar, dryly sardonic humour. Steve, though, was clearly appalled by this revelation that his 'little brother' had been bullied. Seeing the sudden anger on his face, Jesse glanced up at him - reassuring him as only he could. "It's okay, Steve… they may have been short and skinny, but my legs were quicker than theirs…!"
Steve had to laugh at that - unable to resist teasing his friend as he gently ruffled Jesse's hair.
"What about now, Jess…? Reckon those skinny little legs can beat me over a hundred yard sprint…?"
"Well, that kinda depends on how pretty she is…" Jesse shot back with an equally wicked grin.
Laughing too now, both from Jesse's reply and Steve's reaction to it, Mark now stepped in to referee - knowing the brotherly rivalry between his boys was at its strongest when a pretty girl was involved. "And of course it also depends on how fast she can run too…!"
As Jesse and Steve mulled over this hitch to their plans, Mark glanced across at Amanda and winked - sharing her amused relief that Jesse was now settled enough to enjoy this familiar, playful teasing.
Jesse, too, seemed to sense that he'd turned the corner, that the worst of his ordeal was behind him - his expression was much easier now, his eyes calm and settled as he glanced across at Mark. "You know, it's funny… until now, I thought I'd come through my parents' divorce fairly well… I - I mean, compared to other divorces you read about, I thought I'd got away pretty lightly… but I guess it affected me more than I thought… maybe more than I've been prepared to admit…"
"Well, yes, Jesse, I think you're right…" Mark nodded in agreement, smiling proudly back at him. "And as with most burdens, you're sure to feel better now that everything's out in the open…"
"Mark's right, Jesse… it's never a good idea to keep things bottled up…" Amanda chipped in,
taking care not to make her tone sound too patronising as she took Jesse's hand and added gently, "You can always talk to us, you know that, don't you…? You can talk to us about anything…if there's anything troubling you, or worrying you, you can always talk to us about it…"
"Yeah, I know that, Amanda…" Jesse replied, smiling back at her before rubbing tiredly at his eyes. "I - I guess… well, that's something I've always been afraid of, since my mom and dad divorced… whenever I tried to talk to them, to ask what was happening… well, they just sent me to my room… told me to stop being a nuisance… stop getting in their way… I guess that's kinda stayed with me…"
"Traumatic events in childhood always do, Jess…" Mark said softly, trading glances with the others - sharing their dismay at Jesse's harsh treatment, but each of them keeping that dismay tactfully silent. "But as Amanda said, you can always talk to us… if you're in any kind of trouble, we'll be here… we won't think you're a nuisance… and I promise you, Jess, we'll never turn against you… everything you went through in that truly awful nightmare came purely from your imagination…and I promise you, Jess, that nightmare will never happen for real… okay…?"
The answering smile was weary now - but the relief and gratitude within it was unmistakable.
"Thanks Mark… you too, Steve… Amanda, for - for helping me through all this…" Jesse said at last - whatever he planned to say next becoming lost in a sudden, unstoppable yawn.
Clearly enjoying the drowsily sheepish grin that followed, Mark then cast Jesse a fatherly wise smile. "Well, Jess, now that's all settled, I suggest you get some rest… we'll check in on you later, okay…?"
Yawning too much to argue, Jesse simply nodded while hunkering down more snugly into his bed - the tumbled bedclothes he left by doing so prompting Steve to make a typical big brotherly offer. "Want me to tuck you in, Jess…? Maybe read you a bedtime story…?"
Glaring back at his friend, Jesse chose his moment before yawning a sleepily hopeful afterthought. "Only if it comes with hot milk and cookies…!"
"In your dreams, Jess…" Steve retorted dryly, gently ruffling Jesse's hair as he rose to his feet -
ignoring the inevitable protests as he tucked Jesse in anyway before rejoining his father and Amanda.
In the time it took for them to stop laughing and reach the doorway, Jesse was lost to the world, a drowsy smile spreading across his face as he curled himself up under a snug huddle of bedclothes.
Once sure that he'd settled, Mark, Steve and Amanda came to stand once more at his bedside -
each of them exchanging fondly relieved glances as they watched their young friend sleep.
"He's so precious… so special…" Amanda said at last, reaching to gently stroke back Jesse's hair.
"He is that…" Mark agreed, trading a private glance of understanding with his son as he added softly, "One day I'll tell him just how precious and special he is…"
Following Steve and Amanda back to the doorway, Mark paused to glance once more behind him - casting Jesse a final, proudly reflective smile before leaving him to sleep in peace.

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