It was the kind of scene any tourist would be pleased to send home on a postcard. While the sun was blazing there was just enough of a breeze blowing off the Pacific Ocean to keep those fortunate enough to be out along the shore that day comfortable. The zephyr also gently kicked over the tops of the waves to create foamy crests among the sparkling water.
At Mark Sloan's beachfront home, the aging doctor absorbed this view with no less relish because he was privy to it on many similar days of the year; on the contrary, and especially after the phone-call he had just had, he appreciated it all the more and could only think how lucky he was. After his moment of absolute contentment, he descended the steps and carefully carried a tray of drinks and food to the table on the sand that constituted his back yard. For the moment he was sharing his little piece of paradise with only one other person.
"Ah, this is the life," Amanda Bentley sighed happily, her toes curling in delight at the first taste of iced tea, sipped between the bounty of fruit adorning the glass.
Mark had to agree, taking up position on a lounger alongside the beautiful, bikini-clad pathologist, and felt a pang of regret that not all his invited guests were here to wallow in it, too. "Jesse just called. He's going to be a late, there was a smash on the freeway."
His young friend would not leave the ER when it was likely to be overrun, even if his shift was over. There were those who entered medicine for the prestige and aspired to profitable private practices, but luckily there were still some entering the profession with the same simple philosophy Mark was a proponent of - being there to help the sick and injured without thinking what was in it for themselves. Mark had quickly learned that Jesse belonged to this latter group. He doubted he would have felt much affinity for the younger man, otherwise.
"Oh dear. And here we are with not a care in the world," Amanda said woefully, and Mark instinctively knew she was referring more to the accident's victims rather than Jesse's plans being disrupted by it. He understood how she felt. It didn't seem right to be enjoying one's self when other lives were being cruelly marred. But that's just how life played itself out - as unfair as it may seem, and it wouldn't do to dwell on things they couldn't - wouldn't ever - be able to change. At least those who were unfortunate to be caught up in the crash would have the finest care available to them, particularly if they were taken to Community General Hospital. Mark was inordinately proud of how Jesse ran the ER. The young doctor had quickly risen through the medical ranks to a position he deserved, while his surgical prowess had once saved Steve's life when even Mark hadn't been able to rouse his usual optimism toward a favorable outcome.
Amanda seemed to be reading his mind, too; as she smiled reassuringly and added, "Still, they're in good hands "
"The best," he concurred, proudly.
"I suppose we could take advantage of the situation," she said, her rich brown eyes gazing longingly in the direction of the laden tray.
Mark grinned. Jesse's wolfish appetite was well renowned, rivaling only Steve's, but while his son was tall and was built like he ate well, Jesse remained on the short and slight side of average which made it a constant source of amazement as to how his body coped with all he consumed. Though he certainly burned much of it off with the way he exuberantly approached his shifts at the hospital, any investigation Mark was involved in and, of course, his beloved surfing.
"We should. We were lucky Steve left us anything in the first place. You should have seen the picnic he packed up for him and the boys."
Steve had offered to take Amanda's sons climbing. There was a rocky cliff not far along the beach, which was ideal for beginners with its rough surface and many ledges. Amanda hadn't been too keen on the idea, but Dion and CJ's insistent begging had finally won her over, along with Mark's reassurances that they'd be just fine. She seemed to have gotten over her initial fears all right, and was now soaking up some well-earned peace and quiet along with the sunshine.
"We can always order a pizza later," Amanda chimed cheerily, tucking in to one of the thick sandwiches with great relish.
With Steve, two growing boys and Jesse all expected later, Mark had already deemed it would be entirely necessary.
In startling contrast to the glorious weather during the earlier part of the day, by the time Jesse pulled up the driveway, the sun was barely peeking out above the wide sweep of dark cloud cutting the sky in half. The wind had picked up, billowing the jackets of those still intent on occupying the beach despite the ominous turn in the weather.
The young doctor looked worn out, physically and emotionally. Mark recognized the symptoms - something tragic must have transpired in the ER long after Jesse should have left - and he guessed Jesse was going over and over what had happened to try and understand why and if there was anything he could have done to prevent it. There was no point in approaching him during this period of brooding - Jesse would open up about it in his own good time. The fact that the younger man walked straight past the food laid out on the kitchen counter and instead headed straight for the refrigerator to extract a beer, more or less spoke for itself.
Amanda glanced with concern at Mark as Jesse wandered by with barely an acknowledgement of her presence, went into the lounge and sank wearily onto the couch. Mark shook his head at her, silently indicating to leave Jesse alone.
"Looks like there's a storm coming," he commented, turning his attention to the window. They had abandoned the yard when the first lively gusts started to tug the parasol from its stand and the table threatened to upend itself. The temperature had also plummeted and they'd changed from their beach-wear into warmer clothes.
"I hope Steve and the boys get back before it starts. CJ is scared of thunder," Amanda replied, her gaze following his to the blackening horizon, just as a fierce, jagged line of lightning tore across the heavens over the ocean.
"I'm sure they'll be in soon. Steve wouldn't take any chances with those two." Mark was totally convinced of that. Amanda's children were like kin to them all.
"He's too scared of you not to get them back safe," Jesse quipped from where he was leaning against the doorframe, though there was scant joviality in his voice.
"I am not scary," Amanda retorted haughtily in her own defense.
"You are, too," Jesse argued, lightly, but his eyes were still haunted.
"Are you okay?" the pathologist asked, laying a hand on his arm.
"Yeah," he sighed, unconvincingly. Jesse took another swig of his beer as if to give himself the courage to speak. He didn't seem able to look at either of his friends as he took a deep breath and explained the reason for his somber mood. "Two DOAs, one died in the ER, another in the OR, three critical I don't know if any of them are going to make it. I keep asking myself if I did enough, if I could have tried something else "
So, Mark had been correct in his earlier assumption of Jesse's frame of mind. "I'm sure you did everything you could, Jess. Don't be so hard on yourself."
"These things happen. You shouldn't blame yourself. I've heard them all before, Mark," Jesse snapped, uncharacteristically acerbic. "They were all kids, damn it! A kindergarten outing for God's sake!" The young doctor was shaking when his outburst ran out of steam. He sagged where he stood and dropped his head into his hands.
"Oh, no," Amanda breathed, and she gathered Jesse into her arms, stroking his back to in an effort to quell his distress.
Mark blinked back the tears stinging his own eyes. He hadn't even been there, but what little Jesse had said was more than he could bear to imagine. What must it have been like in the ER that afternoon? Every doctor was saddened to lose a battle for life, but it was doubly worse when a child was involved.
Without warning, a heavy smattering of rain caught up in a squall clattered against the window, making all three of them jump. Although it was still essentially daylight, the kitchen had darkened considerably in the time Jesse had made his revelation, but a startlingly bright flash momentarily lit the whole place up, immediately followed by a deafening clap of thunder.
"Where the hell is Steve?" Amanda cried over the top of Jesse's bowed head, the misery of his ordeal now warring with worry for her own children clearly visible on her features.
Unfortunately, Mark could not come up with an answer this time, and he started to feel rather anxious as well. It wasn't like Steve to be irresponsible, or inconsiderate. He peered through the glass at the worsening storm in the vain hope of seeing the missing group come tramping over the dunes. The waves were pounding the beach, which was by this point, thankfully deserted. It always amazed the older man how such a glorious day could turn so bad, but that thought brought another pang of sorrow for all those parents who'd sent their children out for a fun-filled trip this morning and wouldn't be collecting them from the school gates - ever again. And it had probably fallen on poor Jesse's shoulders to be the one to tell them that. His heart went out to his friend all over again.
Just then, the door burst open, nearly wrenched off its hinges as a soaked and bedraggled Dion barreled in. He stood there shivering in just his shorts and T-shirt, gasping for breath, and dripping all over the floor while the grown-ups stared at him in surprise.
Amanda was the first to move, stepping forward to draw her son in, away from the elements. There was no sign of the others. "What's happened, Dion. Where are Steve and CJ?"
Dion could hardly be heard above the chattering of his teeth, though whether that was more from the cold or from fear, Mark was unable to distinguish. "Steve sent me to get help. CJ's stuck on the cliff. He didn't want to leave him."
"What?" Amanda screeched, clearly terrified for her youngest boy's safety.
Jesse disappeared, but soon returned with Mark's emergency medical bag from where he knew it resided in the hall cupboard and coats for everyone, including an old jacket of his own, which he'd left at Mark's house some time ago and was a fairly good fit for Dion. Mark locked the doors and they followed Dion along the shoreline to where he had left his brother and Steve. The wind lashed at them, the salt and sand whipped up in the air stinging their faces. No one could spare the breath to speak as they trudged across the beach until Dion led them up the path to the cliff-top.
Amanda was beside herself with worry for CJ, and her anger at Steve mounted with every step. As the group climbed higher, she wished she had never agreed to the detective taking the boys out on his own. It was absurd of course; he'd done it on numerous other occasions, though admittedly not to do something quite so potentially perilous, but she wasn't going to forgive him for this for a very long time to come. She just hoped he would not have a true cause to regret his actions.
The beach was some forty feet below them by the time they saw a lone figure strung out along the cliff. Steve called to them as they approached. "Don't get too close to the edge! All this water is making the ground unstable."
The pathologist glanced down, and noticed for the first time the rain-made streams running past her feet and dropping over the top, taking mud and small stones with it.
"CJ!" she yelled.
"Mom!" came a frightened cry.
"It's okay, honey. I'm here."
Amanda was, too - more frightened than she could ever remember, but she had to be strong for CJ's sake.
Steve cautiously crawled backwards from his position and met them. "He's alright for now. There's a ledge about ten feet down that he's sitting on," he assured them all before facing Amanda alone. "I'm sorry, Amanda. CJ started to climb back down on his own while I was packing up the gear ready to come home. I didn't notice until he called out for help. By then the storm had started and he was too frightened to move. I couldn't risk going down to him with the edge crumbling. I might have brought the whole lot down on him."
Most of Steve's words bypassed Amanda's hearing altogether. All she heard were lame excuses that left her youngest son in danger.
"How could you be so stupid, Steve? You should have been keeping a closer eye on him," she raged. "I should never have let you take them out on your own "
"I only took my eyes off them for a second. I'd told them not to go near the edge. How was I supposed to know Dion would dare CJ to climb back down?" Steve ranted back.
"Dion? Is that true? You know what I've told you about dares " she rounded on the boy, her anger now divided.
Amanda's foster son cowered from her, and she was instantly ashamed of instigating the reaction, but fear was fuelling her fury.
Another brilliant, blue-white streak cleaved through the sky. The accompanying thunder-clap made the earth shake.
"Mom!" CJ screamed.
"CJ, just hold on tight. We'll have you out of there in no time. I promise, honey," Amanda soothed, trying to calm herself as much as the boy. She turned on Steve. "What are we going to do?"
"I've already told you, it's too risky for me to try climbing down and he's too scared to help himself. I tried lowering a rope down to him, but he wouldn't move to catch it."
In Amanda's eyes Steve was blaming CJ for being a terrified little kid and she was preparing to start another tirade at him in her son's defense when a quiet voice piped up behind her.
"I'm going down," Jesse said, assertively. Sometime while Amanda and Steve had been quarreling, he had removed his coat and tied a rope around himself. "Well, are you going to hold the end of this, or should I find an equally stubborn tree?" he called to Steve, holding out the end of rope toward him.
"You can't climb down, this whole edge could fall away."
Jesse pushed dripping hair back from his forehead, diverting the rainwater from his eyes and gave a final tug on the rope to secure his knot. "I'm not proposing too. Look, I'm the lightest one of us."
Amanda couldn't help but notice the grimace he shot at Steve, evidently regretting his choice of words. Then he smiled sweetly at her. "No offence, Amanda."
If the pathologist's wrath were not currently focused elsewhere he would have been on the sharp end of her tongue, but in her current state of mind a rejoinder of any kind eluded her.
Apparently taking advantage of this, Jesse quickly turned back to Steve and explained the rest of his theory, "You can just lower me down to the furthest part of the ledge. That way we should avoid sending any of this down on top of him. I can check CJ out and then you can pull him back up."
Not only had the young doctor come up with a plausible rescue strategy, he had obviously worked out the arguments for his plan well. Amanda felt ashamed. All she had been coherent enough to think of was to find blame for CJ's predicament. Had she not been frozen to the spot at realizing where her energy should have been directed, she would have hugged Jesse - again.
Steve had to admit the younger man had a point. Not that it made him feel any better about the decision. Climbing down the unstable surface had been out of the question, but Jesse's scheme might just work. Steve was exhausted. Several hours of climbing, and the added concentration of responsibility for Amanda's children were taking their toll on his nerves before the cliff-top drama had begun. The detective felt strung out. This day, after a promising start of jokes and fun with his surrogate nephews, was going to go down in his personal history as a day he'd rather forget.
Amanda was mad at him. The kids seemed frightened of him. Mark was probably disappointed in him - Steve had noticed how he was keeping his distance, opting to stay with Dion instead of becoming involved in his wrangling with the distraught woman. And Jesse was well, he didn't really know what his friend was feeling. Jesse's expressive face was usually a measure of his disposition. His eyes, just by the intensity of their sparkle, gave away any joy, sadness or anger more than any words he uttered. But they were conspicuously devoid of any emotion; which was not only odd, it was downright scary.
In fact, the closer he looked, somehow Jesse appeared older by a great many years, today. The effervescent soul eclipsed. Perhaps it was just the weather, but Steve had a hunch that his friend had probably had an even more heinous day than he had. A trauma surgeon's life was filled with ups and downs, and Jesse normally rode that roller-coaster without the strain of his vocation showing. So whatever had happened must have been bad. Very bad indeed. The plan for CJ's rescue was delivered straight. Jesse had weighed up the options and limitations of the situation, and had come up with a feasible proposal. Steve wondered if some part of himself was jealous that the younger man had been detached enough to think so efficiently, but for the most part he was grateful. And when they were home again, warm and dry, he was going to make sure Jesse knew how proud he was of him. And perhaps that knowledge would be just the thing to chase some of those shadows away.
"Hey, at least put this on," Steve said, pulling his helmet off and pressing it onto Jesse's head. It was a little on the large side, but was a close enough fit once he'd adjusted the strap to cater for the smaller man. He would have given up his gloves, too, but he was going to need them for the grip he'd need to lower Jesse down, whereas all Jesse had to do was hold the rope.
"Ready?" Steve asked.
Jesse looked over the cliff and back to him, full of determination and trust, and nodded. He got down on all fours, crawled to the edge and then eased himself over it, clinging to the rock until the last possible second with a white-knuckled grasp.
"Ready?" Jesse asked Steve.
It was Steve's turn to nod. He braced himself. Jesse grabbed the rope with first one hand and then the other.
Jesse cringed at the strain he could feel on the rope. Ten feet did not sound very far, but when you were faced with a further thirty feet below that to the beach and in such awful conditions, it was beginning to feel like ten miles. He tried not to think of Steve above him, grunting with the exertion of lowering him down, his feet sliding in the mud, his hands gripped tight around the slippery rope.
He hoped Amanda and Steve would at least stop bickering now that he was actively initiating CJ's rescue. They had reminded him too much of his parents before they'd divorced, on the rare occasions both of them had been home at the same time long enough to bump into each other.
Dirty water and gravel showered down on him as the rope bit into the cliff edge above and sawed at it, and he was thankful when his feet finally hit the ledge. "I'm down!" he yelled up to Steve, letting his friend know it was safe to relax his grasp for a while.
Brushing the grit from his face, Jesse carefully made his way across to CJ. Squatting down beside the boy, the doctor made a visual assessment of him and judged that apart from being particularly filthy, he was in pretty good shape, considering his ordeal. "Hey, champ, mind if I join ya?"
"Jesse?" CJ blinked up at him through the rain.
"That's me," he replied, jovially. Deliberately trying to play down his presence, Jesse turned to stare out at the wild ocean as if that was the sole reason for his being there. For all of the minute's silence that ensued he found himself wondering what it must be like to surf on the churning water, until CJ interrupted with a quiet question.
"Is Steve mad at me?"
"Steve? Mad at you? What would make you think that?" he asked, trying to convey incredulity.
"I climbed down when I shouldn't have. And then I wouldn't climb back up. He sounded mad. He shouted at me."
Jesse wasn't surprised. Steve often did that to him, too, but there was a simple explanation - two, actually - in this particular case. "Yeah, well, it might have sounded like that but he had to shout because you're all the way down here and he's up there. Besides, he's worried about you. Sometimes when people are scared it comes out like they're angry. Steve didn't mean it."
"Positive. He just wants to see you safe, CJ. We all do."
"'Kay." CJ appeared to accept his reasoning, until he spoke again, "Mom's mad, too."
Jesse tried not to laugh. "I think you're probably the one she's least angry with at the moment. Apart from Mark, that is." CJ was looking at him quizzically, so he explained, "She's mad at Steve for letting you get into this mess and mad at Dion for daring you to climb back down." He sighed, "And she's mad at me."
"Oh, I think she thinks I called her fat." Jesse cleared his throat, and hastily changed the subject. "Look, why don't we do something to make your mom happy? I don't know about you, but I'm wet and cold and really hungry. How about we go home?"
CJ didn't quite shake his head, but it didn't seem like he could bring himself to move. "I don't like the storm."
Whispering conspiratorially, Jesse told him, "Me neither, but don't let Steve know I said that, okay? Come on CJ, if I can be brave, then I'm sure you can be, too. Right?"
"I I guess so."
"Great." Jesse beamed, and held his hand out to help CJ stand.
The little boy hissed, in obvious discomfort.
"Are you hurt anywhere?" Jesse asked, anxious that he might have missed something with his cursory inspection.
"My knees are sore."
Catching some rainwater in his cupped hands, Jesse used it to gently wash most of the grime from the little boy's legs. He revealed a few nasty scrapes and bruises, but nothing that a dollop of antiseptic cream wouldn't sort out. "I think you'll live," he said amiably, and surreptitiously gave CJ a quick examination all over.
When he was satisfied there was nothing more seriously wrong, Jesse faced CJ directly. "Now, I'm gonna tie this rope around you and Steve's gonna pull you up. All you have to do is hold on tight," he explained, beginning to unwrap the cord from his own waist. "Do you think you can do that?"
CJ nodded hesitantly.
Jesse winced as the rope irritated his hands when he tried to manipulate it, and realized how much it would probably chaff the boy's skin, so he removed his sodden shirt, threaded the rope through the sleeves, fashioning a crude harness, and helped CJ climb into it. He ensured the boy's helmet was still secure and showed him where to hold the rope. Once he was sure CJ was comfortable and confident about his ascent; he called back up to Steve. "CJ's fine! He's ready to come up!"
Immediately the slack on the rope disappeared and CJ was lifted from the ledge. Jesse watched every inch as the boy was hauled up, away from him, just to make sure the evacuation was going smoothly. He was relieved when he saw the boy was nearing the top, CJ would soon be safe in Amanda's arms - and the young doctor knew from experience how good that could feel. Unfortunately, the bottom of CJ's feet was the last image he had as a dazzling flash obliterated his vision, and a tremendous boom simultaneously deafened him, the vibration from it making him nauseous. For a horrible moment, Jesse remembered one of the lowest points of his life - when he had been drugged and coerced into believing he had been abducted by aliens. He had thought all his friends were against him, and he'd said some unforgivable things to Mark. The tone of his accusations haunted him still, even if the actual words had been long forgotten. But Mark hadn't betrayed him - quite the opposite in fact - and brushed off Jesse's many apologies as unnecessary when it was discovered he was the victim of an elaborate attempt to discredit him.
But here he was again - the flashing of lights, the roaring in his ears and the incessant rumbling all around him - it fit almost perfectly with what he had endured back then. Except Mark had proven all that to be false, and this was real. Very real. As the thunder died away, Jesse expected the ground to cease shaking, but if anything the quaking escalated, and by the time he realized what was happening, there was no time to do anything about it. Even if he could have forced a sound from his suddenly arid throat there was nothing anyone else could have done for him either. There was nowhere to which he could escape, nothing to grab hold of for support. The whole cliff face appeared to be moving. Then the stone crumbled beneath his feet and he was falling, several tons of mud and rock crashing along with him to the beach below.
The young doctor didn't contemplate surviving the plunge, but he prayed with all his heart that his friends had managed to get CJ to safety. If he'd achieved nothing else in his life, Jesse would have been content with just the thought that he'd helped bring Amanda's son into the world, and then done something to ensure CJ stay there with his mom and the other people who loved him.
There was a fleeting instant where Jesse's existence became one of all-consuming pain. It started in his left leg as it concertinaed beneath him, and quickly ate at the rest of his body as it followed the wrecked limb, smashing onto the pile of rubble. Only when his head came into contact with something hard and unyielding did the agony subside - when oblivion claimed him instead.
Unbeknown to Mark, his conversation with Dion was proceeding along a similar vein to that of Jesse's with CJ. The boy was wracked with guilt over his CJ's predicament, for which he was mostly responsible. Naturally, the dare hadn't been intended to place his little brother's life in jeopardy. It was, like so many accidents, just another silly prank gone horrendously wrong.
"Is CJ going to be okay?" Dion asked, clearly terrified.
Mark put an arm around the boy's shoulders. "I'm sure he'll be just fine. Jesse will look after him now."
There was a deep sigh from beside him, almost bordering on a full-blown sob, but Dion was obviously fighting the show of emotion. "Mom's real mad at me. Steve, too," he observed.
"Well, I think they have good reason to feel a little angry right now, don't you, Dion? Your mom's worried sick. And Steve thought he was doing a nice thing by bringing you both out for the day, and you've repaid that kindness by disobeying him." Mark let his stern words sink in. It wouldn't do Dion any harm to know he should face up to the consequences of his actions, however he still felt sorry for what the boy was going through and tempered his gentle scolding with kindly reassurance. He laid a hand on Dion's narrow shoulders. "But just because they're angry with you and disappointed, doesn't mean they love you any less. All they want right now is to make sure CJ's safe, and until he is I think everyone is going to be a little edgy."
Dion finally nodded in understanding.
Amanda was pacing frantically behind Steve, muttering to herself and wringing her hands. Mark watched, mildly amused by her behavior and by the way Steve was stoically refusing to be bated by it. Regarding his son more closely, Mark was concerned at how tired Steve looked. It had been a long day, physically and emotionally, and it wasn't over yet. Jesse had been with CJ for a while now, and he didn't want to imagine what might be taking them so long in coming back. He wished there was someway he could oversee what was happening below, but it was too risky to get nearer the edge. At least Jesse hadn't called for the medical bag to be passed down, which he was inclined to count as a blessing in itself.
Steve's fears for the unstable ground were well-founded. The very conditions that made the spot so popular with climbers for the ever-changing cliff-face, were what posed the threat now. The site was constantly being eroded, either from the sea or from storms like today, where the rainwater gushed down the hill and dropped over the cliff, often taking great chunks of earth with it.
Mark knew Jesse's plan was their only option, but he didn't like the thought of the young doctor putting himself in danger, too. He hoped Jesse's volunteer spirit was not some misplaced sense of trying to even up the scales for his own dreadful day.
Another few minutes passed before they heard Jesse giving the go-ahead to Steve for him to start bringing CJ up, but though the end to the ordeal was insight, Mark knew he wouldn't be able to relax until Jesse was safely back with them as well.
A veritable wave of relief that washed over them all as CJ's head appeared. Steve manhandled the boy into his arms, and, yelling at Amanda not to come any closer, he dashed to more solid ground. Mark guided Dion over to his family, wanting him to share in the joy of his brother's rescue.
There was an urgency to Steve's frantic grappling with the knots in the rope, which transmitted to Mark and he lent his own fingers to the job. He ducked, instinctively, as the storm displayed its savageness around them yet again. After a long few moments, the thunder diminished, but the ground kept on shaking, and for once, he wished his mind wasn't quite so adept at making deductions. Because the current one petrified him. He was gathering Amanda and her children tighter together, when Steve broke for the cliff. Mark knew he wouldn't be heard above the din, so his plea to his son to be careful sounded only within the confines of his head.
Steve's cry, however, pierced the ionized air with a charge of its own,
Steve hauled the boy the last foot on the rope and then grabbed his body to pull him up the rest of the way. He was surprised by the ingenuity of the makeshift harness. Jesse never ceased to amaze him.
"CJ, are you okay? Oh, thank God, you're safe," Amanda blurted, rushing forward to help Steve retrieve her son from the cliff's edge.
"Amanda, stay back!" Steve shouted. He could understand her haste to ensure CJ was really unhurt, but he was seriously worried about the stability of the ground this close to the brink. Even as he carried the boy to safety of his mother's arms, he could feel his feet sinking into the mud.
Well away from the cliff's edge, they were trying to get the knots of rope undone ready to send it back down for Jesse, when the lightning struck a tree close by, startling them all. CJ began to cry, presumably relief at being rescued combining with his continuing fear of the storm, but the boy's sobs were soon drowned out by the ensuing tumultuous thunder.
For some reason he couldn't identify, Steve sensed that something was horribly wrong. The tremors running up through his feet changed imperceptibly from the resonance associated with the cacophony from above to something more sinister, and he turned to watch in shocked fascination as a crack appeared along the front of the cliff. "No," he breathed, lurching forward. Steve had forgotten his own rule about not getting too close to the edge, and he scurried back a little as he realized his mistake, just as the rift widened and then the loosened slice of earth dropped from sight.
"Jesse!" he yelled, frozen in abject terror, and he cursed his impotence to quell the ultimate forces of nature, as his eyes scanned the scene below for any sign of his friend.
The ledge on which CJ had sheltered for so long was gone, and Jesse with it.
"Can you see him, Steve? Is he okay?" Mark called to him from where he was huddled with Amanda and the boys.
Steve was grateful his father was staying back, and he wished there was something he could tell him, but Jesse was nowhere to be seen except there. Steve rubbed the rain from his eyes and focused again. Something caught his attention. The deluge was gradually washing the mud out of the landslide littering the beach, and the color of flesh was becoming more distinct. The only trouble was - so was another, more terrifying hue - that of blood - lots of it.
Mark could only draw bad conclusions from the way his son was not answering his questions, and his heart began to hammer in his chest as dread overcame him. "Steve?"
"I I can see him. He's not moving."
Stepping carefully to Steve's side, Mark was very wary of the unsound earth he was traversing. He followed the detective's gaze and raked his hand through his hair at the sight of his young friend's broken body lying among the rubble. Oh, Jess
"I've got to get down there," Mark said, instantly.
Steve started to protest, but the doctor was not going to be swayed. Besides, it was the only logical course of action. How they were going to get any other help to the remote location was anybody's guess. The storm eliminated the prospect of air or sea rescue, while the road was still half a mile of rough terrain away. And emergency services would likely be stretched already, not that they had any way of contacting them from here, because there was no cell phone network coverage. No, the only way Mark could think of saving Jesse, assuming he was still alive - and he absolutely refused to believe any differently until the proof was undeniable - was for them to do it themselves.
The trip down to the beach was every bit as hazardous as he'd imagined, but he wouldn't let his resolve wane. It was too late now, anyway. Steve was enervated, and Mark couldn't expect his son to pull him back up because of his cold feet. All he could do was cling tenaciously to the rope and use his feet to take as much of his weight as possible. He figured now a substantial portion of the cliff had fallen away, that which was left would bear a little more pressure than they'd been willing to risk with CJ on the ledge on his own.
Also in their favor was that the rain had slowed a little to be a constant, steady downpour, rather than the earlier torrent. The wind had abated slightly, too, but visibility hadn't improved because it was now beginning to get dark.
"Okay, Steve, I'm down!" he shouted loudly. Steve dropped the medical bag, which landed with a hollow thud beside him, as Mark was untying himself and then he stumbled across the rock-strewn seashore to Jesse's motionless form. Partially covered by the detritus, the young man looked dead. His skin, where it could be seen apart from the abrasions, dirt and his torn jeans was gray, almost translucent, and his lips were turning blue. Mark thought he had prepared himself to witness Jesse's appalling condition close up, but it came as a sharp blow to the aging doctor who looked upon his usually vibrant colleague as a second son. Trembling, he sank to his knees and placed his fingers on the dreadfully chilled flesh. He let out the breath he had been holding as he discovered a faint, fluttering. Mark pulled the stethoscope from his bag to corroborate the weak presence of life. It didn't instigate much hope, and Mark doubted anything he could do outside of a warm, sterile hospital would coax the sorry excuse for a pulse into anything more than its current feeble, erratic rhythm, but he was determined to prolong that heartbeat for as long as humanly possible.
Mark's concern mounted with every part of his assessment of Jesse's condition. It was fairly obvious the left leg had taken the brunt of the impact with the ground, with three breaks that he could easily see, and the left arm hadn't faired much better. In addition, several of Jesse's ribs on that side were, at the very least, cracked; yielding to the cautious pressure he expended; and were consequently hampering his breathing. Then there was the possibility of other internal injuries and spinal damage and, although the climbing helmet had probably saved him from an immediately fatal blow, Jesse would have suffered a severe concussion at the very least, so it was understandable he was unconscious. Mentally cataloguing the list, which would have had him reeling even in a fully equipped trauma room, Mark conceded it all could have been so much worse. He could only assume that falling along with the landslide rather than a direct hit with solid ground had averted some harm.
However, while he could see an argument for the positive side to the situation, it was quelled by the realization of another case for urgency - the tide was coming in. Mark didn't know how long they would have until their position was overrun by the encroaching ocean, and he willed Steve to reach them soon, for there was no way he would be able to evacuate Jesse from the beach alone.
He brushed as much of the debris from the stricken figure as he could, then took his coat off and draped it over Jesse's bare chest, hoping some of the residual body-heat in the lining would find its way into the cadaver-cold body.
Mark wasn't sure whether it was as a direct result of being covered, but seconds later, Jesse's long eyelashes danced against his ashen cheeks.
"Jesse?" the older doctor chirped, hopefully, willing his charge to wake up.
Suddenly, Jesse coughed. Mark caught his head as it surged upward with the violent reflex, supporting it as Jesse expelled an amount of muddy water, and he included another potentially huge problem to his growing list. If Jesse had aspirated filth from the fall, it was going to cause pleurisy and exacerbate his difficulty in breathing with lungs already restricted by the damage to his ribs.
Jesse's voice was slurred and hoarse, but at this point Mark was simply grateful for small mercies. Jesse was not only alive but capable of consciousness. Looking down at Jesse's wretched form from the cliff-top, he had thought it foolish to dare hope for either. Though of course he had.
"Don't try to move, Jess," he said, soothingly, capturing Jesse's right arm as it shakily rose toward him. Leaning over, he couldn't help the doctor in him asking, "Do you remember what happened?"
The young man's eyes screwed up in apparent concentration, although Mark guessed pain was probably more to blame. "Um, f-fell," Jesse muttered, softly. Then he shifted in alarm, and a sharp cry of suffering escaped as he aggravated his injuries, before he stammered, "Oh, God C-CJ, is-is he alright?"
Mark laid a reassuring hand on Jesse's shoulder, marveling how despite the agony his friend must be in his concern was for someone else. "He's fine, Jesse. He and Dion are with Amanda. They're on their way back to the beach house to get warmed up, and dry." It felt like he was torturing the freezing form to be talking this way, but he knew it was what Jesse needed to hear.
"S-sounds good," Jesse croaked, a twitch of a smile curling his cyanosed lips.
It really did. Mark wished for nothing more than the chance to get Jesse out of the elements, and preferably where he could be properly cared for. Several of his injuries could become life-threatening, while there was more danger from continued exposure and a protracted delay in treatment like hypothermia, hypoxia and infection.
"Jesse," Mark said seriously, looking directly into the pale blue eyes. The lack of focus in the usually intense gaze bothered him, and he could only hope there was enough capacity for cognizance beyond the welfare of his friends within the young doctor's rattled brain to make a connection he would rather not suggest. "I don't know how long it's going to be before we can get you to hospital, and you have a number of broken bones "
"And you want to reduce them." Jesse met his gaze with a comprehending, if not altogether lucid, stare.
"Yes." Jesse would know the risks of leaving the fractures open for too long. The blood loss by itself would be dangerous, but he might lose circulation in the limbs altogether, rendering them useless - at best. But any treatment he performed was going to be agonizing, and he didn't know if Jesse's severely weakened system was going to be able to withstand the onslaught.
"Do what you have to," Jesse bravely told him, before another fit of coughing stole his breath and he groaned at the torture it inflicted.
"I should try and find something to stabilize the reductions," Mark said, once the paroxysm had subsided. Glancing around the bleak landscape of the immediate vicinity, he spotted a few old gnarled branches scattered about, which must have been on the beach for some time. All the bark had been worn away and the remaining wood was gray and smooth. They weren't ideal, but they would have to do.
"Dad?" the voice startled Mark. His eyes were just about coping with the increasing gloom, but he'd been direction his attention at the ground and hadn't seen his son approaching.
"Steve " he sighed, relieved the younger man had arrived on the scene.
"How is he?" the detective asked, breathlessly.
Mark glanced over his shoulder, hoping their conversation would be out of Jesse's earshot, he didn't want to blight the injured man with his grim prognosis. "Not good, Steve. We need to get him to a hospital "
Steve wished that was going to be an imminent possibility, but the chances were slim. Even if Amanda managed to alert the emergency services to their position, it was a remote place. He knew first hand how storms of the kind of ferocity they'd just witnessed there would have been numerous calls stretching rescue crews to their limits. In all likelihood, one casualty in a virtually inaccessible location would come very low on the list of priorities, no matter how grave his condition. The only hope of getting Jesse to a medical facility in time to save his life was for them to get him off the beach themselves.
The detective couldn't help wondering then, why his father had an armful of driftwood. "The tide's coming in, there's not much point in starting a fire," he sarcastically observed.
"Jesse has several serious fractures, to his leg and his arm. They need to be dealt with before we attempt to move him."
"Do you think there's time?" Steve asked, his gaze searching out the incoming waves.
"There has to be," Mark curtly replied. He looked at Steve with tears in his eyes. "Believe me, if I thought we could get him off this beach without putting him through this I would. The pain I'm going to put him through may simply be too much for his body to withstand and we risk losing him, but I think there's little chance he'll survive if we try to move him in the state he is now."
So, it came down to the lesser of two evils. Steve did not envy his father's decision. He would never blame him, if Mark truly believed he was doing the right thing, that was good enough for Steve, and he knew Jesse would not blame his mentor either. But Mark would never forgive himself if this went the wrong way and in spite of all his good intentions, Jesse died. Steve would just have to be there for him, if, God forbid, that happened.
Steve followed his father over to where Jesse was, but found his own legs curiously leaden the closer he got, and he realized with a sense of shame it was his subconscious' way of telling him he didn't want to see his friend's devastated body. Maybe the picture wouldn't be as bad as Mark had painted it. Maybe if Jesse were oblivious to the extent of his injuries, the sight would be easier to cope with.
Unfortunately, neither was true. As Steve knelt at the young man's side, Jesse looked dead - like a doll tossed on a rubbish heap - dirty and ruined. But worse, when Steve finally managed to shuffle his feet nearer, the apparent corpse spoke.
Jesse's voice was a ghost of its normal, exuberant self, cracked and thin, and though Steve was thankful there was life enough to produce sound from the abused body, it also meant Jesse would be in excruciating pain. He could feel his face draining of color as his eyes tracked the short length of the young doctor, appreciating that while there were some very obvious serious injuries, there were undoubtedly some unseen which could prove infinitely more dangerous.
"Jess," Steve whispered, shocked to the core at his friend's predicament, and the following banal words left his mouth without thought, "how're you feeling?"
Jesse almost smiled. "Um, not not s-so good," he responded, honestly.
"Sorry, I " Steve wanted to apologize for his tactlessness, but found there were so many other things he was repentant about; like how responsible he felt for what had happened, and how he wished he could take away the agony; that again his mouth failed him.
"S'okay, Steve." Jesse's long, usually adroit fingers found Steve's knee. While they lacked any co-ordination, the deed made him realize Jesse knew what he was thinking. The detective's shame intensified. It was Steve who should be comforting his terribly injured friend, not the other way around. He laid his own hand over the icy digits, which for the moment was all he could do.
Mark came up and crouched alongside them. "Are you ready for this, Jess?"
Steve understood it was not really a question. His father had already indicated there was no other way to proceed.
"I'll need some help, Steve," Mark squeezed his shoulder.
"Mark, Steve," Jesse said clearly, the effort of speaking etched on the expressive features. "I just wanted to say thanks."
Oh, God. Steve thought. Jesse is afraid he's going to die. He knows what dad is going to do could kill him. Steve became rigid with fear for his young friend.
"Thanks for letting me be part of everything," Jesse persisted, his voice wavering a little, but his concentration resolute. "And thanks for always being there, you know " He swallowed, and then singled out Mark with a glassy, but nonetheless potent, blue gaze. "I wish you'd been my dad."
"It sounds like you're giving up," Mark chastised the younger doctor, and Steve balked at it. Jesse had just admitted his innermost feelings and his father was telling him off!
"S'hard not to," the clarity had all but disappeared. Jesse looked shocked at the admonishment, too, and Steve was sure he was gulping back a sob.
But Mark appeared undeterred from the reprimand, and all that was missing was a wagging index finger. "Now, let me tell you something, young man. If I'm going to do my best to save you, then the least you can do is fight from your corner. Is that clear?"
"O-okay," Jesse agreed, seemingly stunned into submission.
Mark continued at length, reminding his protégé of his responsibilities to the hospital and most especially, his patients. He got Steve to hold Jesse's left knee while he applied gentle traction to the lower part of the limb, to pull the sections of misplaced bone back into line. Steve held his breath, alternately watching his father's skillful performance and glancing back at his friend, fully expecting him to vocalize the new pain at any second. He was beginning to wonder whether Mark's lecture was dulling the effects, but thankful nonetheless that Jesse was apparently being spared further suffering, when he caught sight of a new anxiety clouding the older man's eyes.
It hurt Mark to have to bully his young friend into fighting for his own life. He wished that after all the years Jesse had spent together - at work, at home, on cases - as part of the Sloan extended family, that by now he would have more sense of his worth within it. Despite having patched things up with his own dad lately, there was still a chasm of difference between their bond and the kind of father-son relationship which Mark enjoyed with Steve, and Jesse had never made any secret of how much he desired just that. And while he gave so much with his enthusiasm, compassion and an ever-ready sunny smile, it seemed he still thought the affection between them was strictly one-way. Mark, incidentally, would have been happy and proud to have fathered such a son, as Dane Travis was - but he remained much the absent parent he had always been, even though his home was now listed as LA.
Regrettably, the sadness that gripped Mark's conscience over Jesse's self-effacing manner and his wanting for unconditional love was not the only problem currently perturbing the older doctor. He had purposefully adopted a monotonous tone as he manipulated the smashed leg, knowing the hypnotic effect it could induce, but it seemed to be working rather better than he'd hoped for; and that was not necessarily a good sign. Jesse had made no hint that he was aware of what was being done to him, and while Mark had wanted to minimize his pain, he hadn't warranted on it being completely missing. Consequently, his earlier fear of a spinal injury was becoming a harsh reality.
Reluctantly, he decided to test his theory.
"Okay now, Jess?"
"Um, yeah ready when you are," the young man answered with hesitant resoluteness, and Mark's heart sank. Jesse hadn't realized he had already reduced two of the fractures. This was bad, and he could feel Steve's gaze on him. He gave his son a quick shake of the head. Although he wouldn't hide the truth, it was imperative that he finished the job he'd started, and if they alerted Jesse to the fact that he couldn't feel the agony of having his bones set because of some form of paralysis, it would inevitably delay the procedure while they calmed him down. For the time being he couldn't help but feel a little grateful that his ministrations were not putting undue stress on an already overtaxed heart. Mark decided to press ahead while he could make progress. He quietly gave some further instructions to Steve and began to tease the wayward thighbone back into line.
"M-mark?" Jesse rasped.
Uh, oh. He supposed it was too good to last. Not that he would consider any part of this situation particularly desirable. But Jesse was a doctor after all, and he had to know by now what was happening and more importantly what he wasn't feeling.
"Just a minute, Jesse." Mark gritted his teeth and finally felt the bone grind back into place.
Rubbing bloody hands on his pants, the older doctor inclined his head toward Jesse's frightened face.
"Have you ?"
"But I I didn't feel it. It should have hurt like hell, shouldn't it?"
Jesse began tossing his head from side to side, straining to see the lower half of his body, but Mark coaxed him to lie quietly, by gently stroking his hair back from his forehead. "Yes, it should. I don't know why it didn't, and I can't do anything about finding the cause until we get you to hospital. Now, let me sort out your arm so we can try and get you there, okay?"
Still distraught though, Jesse fretfully asked, "But what if I'm paralyzed?"
"It's a possibility. One of many to explain your lack of feeling at the moment, but I'm not prepared to discuss 'what ifs' when the most important thing right this minute is saving your life. Now, will you let me concentrate on that?" Troubled by the turn of events, Mark couldn't control his voice well enough to prevent his words from sounding angry. To ease his conscience, he squeezed the young man's shoulder, and hoped at the same time to convey reassurance. "You're a good doctor, Jesse. Why don't you try being a good patient for a change?" he said, affably.
Jesse was terrified. He hadn't exactly wanted to be in agony but he could hear Mark's orders to Steve and see them on the periphery of his vision. He recognized what they were doing, but it was as if they were working on someone else, because other than a dull ache that seemed to encompass the whole of his lower half, he couldn't feel anything. Not pain, not the traction, not even their hands on his legs. Nothing.
Mark wouldn't tell him what was wrong, and his fear was compounded by
a sudden irrational anger towards his mentor, which he just as quickly quashed.
Mark wasn't going to make a diagnosis from the scant information he could
gather here. The paralysis could be induced by any number of conditions.
As a doctor himself, he should know that, however difficult it was to accept.
Jesse guessed he would simply have to wait
to find out if his life
"Aah," he gasped, as his left arm was tugged.
"Easy, Jess." Steve's voice floated into his mind, driving through but not deadening the sensations generated by the torturous procedure to reduce the fractures in his arm. The same being done to his leg should have provoked a suffering several times more extreme, and for just one second Jesse was actually glad he'd been spared it.
Mark had splinted and tied his legs together with bandages from his medical bag, and now his left arm was secured to his side. He was beginning to appreciate how a turkey must feel, trussed, ready for Thanksgiving. Ha. A derogatory voice said at the back of his mind. But a turkey is dead - it can't feel anything. Unfortunately, he conceded, half of him was dead, too. So perhaps his analogy was closer than he'd originally intended.
"We can't stay here any longer, Jesse. We're going to have to move you ourselves."
Jesse knew there was no choice in the matter. This was one of those 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situations. Moving was going to put further stress on his already weakened body, perhaps fatally so; and if they didn't move him he would die - either drowned by the incoming tide or purely from lack of medical intervention. But without the proper equipment there was a potential to exacerbate any spinal injury from what might just be a temporary inconvenience to a permanent, debilitating condition.
Shakily, he said, "I-it's okay, Mark. I know what it could mean. I w-won't hold you responsible."
Mark shot a steely glare at him. The reaction was as sharp as if he'd slapped the older man. "I wasn't asking for your forgiveness, Jess. I'm not afraid of what we've got to do for the chance of saving your life. I I just wish there was another way to get you to some help."
Ashamed for putting his friend through the anguish of having to work around the Hippocratic Oath of 'first do no harm', Jesse tried to swallow the sob that was threatening to break free. He couldn't think very well above the constant ache in his head and he knew his words hadn't come out quite how he'd really meant them to. Jesse was, in actuality, grateful to Mark for the approach he was taking. The older man was being honest and open about his own fear, and yet he was encouraging Jesse to process the information for himself, and in as much as he was able, feel a part of the decisions being taken in his care.
He tried to think of something to say which would convey all this, but everything hurt too much. He was certain of one thing, though, and it would have to serve as an exoneration for his what his mentor was proposing. "I trust you, Mark." It had taken a monumental effort on his part to make sue his voice didn't waver, so Jesse was more than thankful to see a warm smile play on his friend's features at the admission, and when a hand affectionately ruffled his hair, he added, just as assertively, "I always have."
Steve was staring out at the dark ocean. On the very horizon there was a faint red glow painting the bottom of the sky, heralding a glorious sunset somewhere beyond the heavy clouds. He took a deep breath, trying to prepare himself for the task ahead. Jesse was seriously injured. While it could well have been a whole lot worse, the young man needed to be in a hospital - soon, and there was no other way to achieve this than for Steve to carry him at least part of the way. The detective often teased his friend about his slight frame, but right now he couldn't have been more grateful that Jesse wasn't forty pounds of muscle heavier, or indeed, six inches taller. Nevertheless, it was going to be awkward.
He waited for his father to finish speaking with Jesse before he stepped up to the immobilized body. It was going to be like carrying a plank of wood, he considered, grimly. But this was no burden. Jesse was his best friend, his business partner and they were closer than he was with his own sister.
Between them, Steve and Mark had determined it would be best to lift Jesse together, and then when Steve was ready he would take the full weight alone. He was aware of Mark's concerned that they hadn't been able to find anything suitable to brace the young doctor's back, but as the first lap of the Pacific wetted Jesse's hair Steve knew they had run out of time. They would have to deal with any ramifications of moving Jesse without specialized apparatus later. For now all that mattered was to ensure he survived at all.
An air of seriousness descended over the men as Steve and Mark positioned themselves. Steve slid one hand under Jesse's bound thighs, the other under his slim shoulders, while Mark spread both of his beneath Jesse's back to provide as much support as possible. On a count of three, the two older men raised the young one from the mud. Steve heard Jesse sharply suck in a breath, and he wished they didn't have to put him through this.
The detective adjusted his grasp a little, and Mark helped to arrange Jesse's head to lie against Steve's broad chest, and then they set off for the arduous journey across the beach. Steve tried to ignore the occasional whimpers, groans or coughs emanating from the young man nestled in his arms. If he thought about how much pain each jarring step was inflicting on the abused form, he wasn't sure he could carry on and maintain his sanity.
Every now and then, Mark ordered a halt, partly to check on Jesse but also to give Steve much-needed breaks. It was a good job he kept himself fit, in fact with the demands of his day-to-day job and being a volunteer firefighter, it was essential, but carrying his friend was becoming a grueling feat of endurance. One which he did not intend to fail.
'You left me.' Though the words had been an honest answer to his question, and had neither contained, nor were uttered with even a hint of accusation, they had been the most cutting words he'd ever heard. To all intents and purposes Jesse had disappeared off the face of the planet for those five days, and when he'd been found he had essentially remained lost to them - until Mark had worked out Paris Pharmaceutical's dastardly plan to shame the young doctor. Steve had always felt responsible for giving Trask the opportunity to abduct his friend. He wasn't going to let him down again.
Though his initial aim was to get to their own home, the further he plodded, the more he realized it was not a practical goal. Jesse needed help sooner rather than later, and Steve, despite his physical aptitude, simply knew he would never manage to get that far. All his muscles were quivering with effort.
The whisper didn't register at first, but the cough that followed it did, hacking through his fatigued brain, so he was ready to answer when the thin voice came again.
"Yeah, Jess, what is it?" he replied, wearily, as if they were both pooped after a late shift at Bob's, then he pondered their situation and looked down at his friend's sweat-sheened face. "What's wrong? Are you "
"I'm okay, Steve. But you're not. Put me down. Please," Jesse pleaded, huskily. "You're exhausted."
"I'm fine," Steve lied. "We're nearly there."
"Mark!" Jesse cried, eliciting another series of hacking coughs.
"What is it, son?" Mark asked, quickly bringing Steve to a halt, and immediately ready with his stethoscope.
Jesse flinched from the attention as he turned his petition to the older man. "Tell Steve he has to rest. I can feel his heartbeat. It's drumming faster than Animal on 'The Muppets'. He can't go on like this," he entreated, leaving an unspoken, 'Not for me,' hanging heavy in the air.
"I can rest when we get you home. So quit talking and let me get you there, okay?" Steve chided. Although, he was somewhat encouraged by Jesse's concern and his loquacious expression of it.
"Steve, you're sure?" Mark questioned, concerned.
He could feel his father's eyes penetrating him, trying to see for himself how close to the edge of his physical endurance he was.
"Yes!" he snapped. He didn't need to be reminded of the toll being exerted on his body. While he didn't begrudge bearing the load, he also longed to be somewhere he could put Jesse down, and know he was going to get the care he required. That place was nowhere in the immediate vicinity, so Steve continued on his quest, steadfastly planting one foot in front of the other.
Mark was worried for both his boys. All the jostling of being carried across the rough terrain was not doing Jesse any good. His breathing was becoming more ragged, the coughing more frequent and harsh. The last time they had paused for Steve to have a rest, Mark had examined Jesse's chest closely and had discovered the rib fractures destabilizing. Quite apart from the pleurisy, which was definitely taking hold, he was in danger of a punctured lung, but there was no alternative than to forge ahead.
Steve, too, was showing signs of being on the verge of collapse. His gruff, tough, cop of a son was looking haggard well beyond his years, and his breathing didn't sound that much better than Jesse's. Still, Mark knew Steve would never give up when his young friend desperately needed help. Jesse had an influence on his son that few, if any, had ever achieved before. Steve's often acerbic behavior seemed to go right over the young doctor's head, and it had nothing to do with their differences in height, while Steve seemed able to tolerate Jesse's exuberant and garrulous personality, even though he professed it drove him mad. If ever a relationship had been the epitome of chalk and cheese, theirs was it. But it worked. Closer than many brothers Mark knew, Steve and Jesse would do anything for each other.
At long last, a house came into sight, the last on the beach road before it snaked back up to the PCH. But their relief at reaching civilization was short-lived. Although a light was on under the awning over the beach-view patio, no one answered the door. The house and its canopy, however, provided a modicum of shelter from the elements and one look at Steve had Mark ordering him to lay Jesse on the long wooden bench against the wall. Steve sank with a grateful sigh to the decking alongside and closed his eyes.
Mark slid back his coat from Jesse's chest and used his stethoscope to examine him again. The crackling sounds from both lungs were worrisome, and where before when he'd tested the young man's ribs they grated, but there was only slight give, now his gentle pressure caused discernible movement in several places. Jesse groaned, and inhaled with some difficulty.
"Jesse, take it easy, son. Try not to breathe too deeply, okay? Just nice and slow."
Jesse nodded and swallowed, cautiously. "M-mark, m-my watch I forgot to ask is it ?"
"I have it right here, my friend," Mark patted his shirt pocket where he had put the watch Dane Travis had given his son, having taken it off before splinting Jesse's arm. He knew how much the timepiece meant to Jesse. "It's going to need a good clean, but it's working."
A rueful quirk of the young doctor's mouth transpired as he glumly muttered, "Glad one of us is."
"Now, Jesse "
"I know tests and waiting. It's a whole hell of a lot easier to say than it is to do. They don't tell you that at med-school."
"Most of what makes you such an exceptional doctor, you never got from there, either," Mark told him, proudly, laying a hand on the cold cheek. He thought he saw the ghost of a bashful smile play on the expressive features. Jesse never was one to accept praise readily, even when it was more than due.
Mark was about to see if any of the other nearby houses were occupied to see if they could get an ambulance, when Jesse coughed again and his subsequent breath hitched. The young man began to fidget, struggling for a breath that wouldn't come, and his one free hand flew to his chest as he tried to curl in towards his pain.
"Aah. It hurts, Mark. God " Jesse cried, heaving as he fought to pull air into his beleaguered lungs.
"Dad?" Steve questioned, rising in alarm at the sound of his friend's distress.
Mark barely had time to ascertain what was wrong when Jesse's eyes rolled
up and he passed out from lack of oxygen, immediately becoming limp.
"What the hell?" Steve exclaimed, clearly scared.
"He has a flail chest," Mark told his son. "I was afraid this would happen. Moving him has aggravated the cracks in his ribs, at least one of them is broken in more than one place, the loose piece moves paradoxically to the lung, making it very painful and hard to breathe. He's not going to be able to keep it up for long, like that. He really needs to be intubated," Mark said, gravely.
"Tell me you're not considering doing that out here, too?" Steve demanded, horrified. The dreadful memories of the measures they'd already been forced to carry out in the open in order to save Jesse's life etched deeply on his face.
Mark looked innocently at Steve. The thought had never entered his head - there was nothing to hand here which he could use for such a delicate and invasive procedure. No, he was going to wait until they reached the beach house
All the way back to Mark's home, Amanda had been trying to get hold of the emergency services to initiate some kind of rescue, but she couldn't get any signal on her cell phone. She had even knocked on the door of one of the other houses along the sea-front to use their phone. The overworked call-center operator had given a scant, pre-formed apology, however there was no indication of when anyone would be able to come out to them. Several serious situations were ongoing downtown and the traffic system was currently grid-locked.
But Jesse needs help now! Amanda wanted to yell. Didn't they understand? He had saved her child's life, and he deserved equal consideration.
Part of the pathologist's ire stemmed from her own guilty conscience plaguing her. She wasn't with Jesse when he needed her either. She hadn't even stayed to see if he was alive or not. Mark had insisted she go straight to the beach house with the children and make sure they were okay. He had stooped so low as to use the 'it's what Jesse would want you to do' card, to make sure she did.
Dion and CJ were unusually quiet during the whole trek back. Amanda guessed it was as much a result of sensing her own dark mood as well as the shock of what had happened to their Uncle Jesse.
It wasn't until she had gotten them all inside, though, that she suddenly found herself crying, when she peeled the clothes from the two sodden boys and realized that each of them was wearing a jacket that belonged to the young doctor. Why did something so dreadful have to happen who only ever tried to help people? As a trauma specialist and surgeon, as a restaurant co-owner, as a budding homicide investigator, as a neighbor and as a friend, Jesse first thoughts were always for those around him, and while he might complain when life threw him curve-balls, he never wallowed in self-pity. If anyone offered to help him then that was fine, otherwise he simply coped alone, as, she reflected bitterly, he had learned from an early age to do.
Had that thunderclap occurred just a minute earlier, CJ would have been caught in the landslide, too. Amanda would be forever grateful that he had not, but she would never have willingly offered the young man she regarded as a little brother in exchange for her son's salvation. Somehow, though, she knew Jesse would probably have accepted the cruel twist of fate without question, and she wondered if she really deserved that kind of friendship.
After getting CJ and Dion bathed and tucked up in bed with hot chocolate and cookies, Amanda showered herself, donned her beachwear once more and made a pot of coffee.
More than an hour and nearly the whole brew later, she heard noises downstairs in Steve's half of the house. After a quick check on the boys who were now both sleeping soundly, she armed herself with a poker from Mark's resplendent fireplace and went to see what the commotion was. Creeping down the staircase, she let out a relieved breath as she spied two familiar figures leaving a wet, muddy trail across the small living room's carpet. Between them they were bearing a six-by-two sheet of plywood upon which the third member of their little band lay, motionless.
"Oh my God, tell me you didn't walk all the way here!" she
exclaimed, eying the bedraggled men, as they eased the makeshift stretcher
to the floor.
"Well, if it'll make you feel any better, we won't. That cab was pretty rough, huh, Steve?" Mark quipped, breathing exaggeratedly.
"Rough, yeah," Steve wearily sighed, as he slumped to the floor beside his stricken friend. "Remind me to book executive class next time."
Amanda couldn't believe either her eyes or her ears. She just stared open mouthed, her gaze alternating from one to the other of them. Studiously, she avoided looking too closely at Jesse, afraid for the worst. Though a part of her knew that the humor, albeit Spartan, exuded by Mark and Steve did not tell that tale; unfortunately, what little she could see of the bound and battered form of the young man very dear to her heart did not do much to reassure it was not the case.
"Steve carried Jesse until we reached the beach road, then we managed to call for an ambulance from one of the nearest houses. They're still backed up with calls, so I asked them to meet us here. I wanted to get Jesse back home so I could take a better look at him while we waited. Mr. Hanson lent us this board to use as a stretcher," Mark informed her.
With the shock abating, Amanda could see that Steve was shaking. "I'll get some blankets and towels," she said, hurrying off in the direction of Steve's bedroom. When she returned, Mark was hovering over Jesse. She shook out a towel and draped it over Steve's head, and opened a blanket to wrap around him. "You look done in," she said, bluntly.
"Thanks. I wish I could say I didn't feel it," Steve soberly replied as he began to rub his hair dry.
"Mark, you should really get out of those wet clothes," she advised the older man, also handing him a towel. "I'll keep an eye on Jesse."
He nodded, tiredly and reluctantly, but went upstairs to change.
When Amanda got her first good look at the younger doctor, she gasped. The charmingly boyish features were dirty, bruised and grazed, and his eyes broadcast pain on a level she would not wish on her worst enemy.
"Hey, 'Manda," he croaked, between the rattling, shallow panting which currently served as his breathing.
"Jesse," she whispered, tearfully, noting with horror the faltering movement of his chest as she covered him with the other two blankets she had brought. Amanda's fingers trembled as she reached out to stroke his damp forehead. The day had started out so beautifully - with the prospect of good company, good food, a relaxing few hours on a sun-drenched beach and a dip in the warm ocean, with Jesse's promise of showing her how to catch the waves - how could it all have gone so wrong?
"Looks like we'll have to put that surfing lesson on hold " she said, injecting as much frivolity into her voice as she could muster, as she attempted to make a joke out of the situation, much like Jesse himself would normally do. It went down like a lead balloon.
Jesse snorted, and with uncharacteristic causticity, responded, "Yeah, indefinitely."
The instant the words left his mouth, Jesse wanted to apologize. He knew it wasn't fair to take his resentment out on Amanda. She wouldn't even realize why he'd taken such exception to her comment. Even though his hearing was starting to futz in and out, he was fairly certain no one had told her yet of the full extent of his injuries. But common sense wasn't a quality to which Jesse could ascribe just now. His mind was racing with thoughts of his possible paralysis spiraling crazily out of control as he labored to breathe. Amanda had simply reminded him of another facet of his life that was dependant on having the use of his legs. He would miss surfing. Pitted against the most incredible force of nature, the rush of riding a wave, and even the wipe-out was a thrill that could not be surpassed.
"S-sorry, I I jus' 'Mand', I'm s-scared." There. It was out. His confession laid bare. Though at this point it was a toss-up as to whether he was more of scared of living than not.
He felt a tear scorch a path down his temple, and at the same time heard Amanda trying, unsuccessfully, to stifle a sob, making him feel all the more guilty for causing her sorrow.
"Oh, honey, of course you are," she replied softly, as she continued to tease her fingers affectionately across his forehead and through his hair. The motion was hypnotic, comforting and yet frightening because it seemed to be tugging him under. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake. Everything was blurred, out of focus, darkening at the edges - had been for some time, but getting steadily worse. He wasn't getting enough oxygen. He was dying. After all Mark and Steve had done to try and save him. Jesse didn't want to let them down so badly, but his body didn't seem to be listening to him anymore. He so much wanted to trawl in a huge breath, but it was impossible. He could feel the floating piece of rib digging into his left lung, halting its expansion long before there was sufficient air to replenish his system. On top of this, the fluid in his lungs was building up, restricting their efficiency still further and making him want to cough. He was desperately trying not to, knowing from the last time that the pain would rip him apart.
Every single breath was taking monumental concentration and Jesse didn't know how much longer he would be able to keep it up. He was utterly drained, cold and uncomfortable. His head ached, his chest burned with the effort of someone who'd run a hundred marathons back to back and all in record time, and his arm was throbbing. But the greatest assault on his sensibilities was, conversely, the numbness encompassing his lower half. It was more acute and more pervasive than all his other hurts put together, and the reason was Mark. Jesse respected the older doctor like no other and he knew the brilliant surgeon would do his utmost to fix all he could, to ensure his survival. However, if his spine was injured, then all the surgical skill in the world wasn't going to do him any good. Mark would not be able to give him back his life, and a treacherous part of himself didn't know if he would be able to forgive his mentor for that.
Jesse loved his life as he lived it - doing everything he could possibly cram into the woefully few hours there were in a day.
He couldn't think of any career he could get more pleasure from than being a doctor. While its downside, with the prime example of the tragedies in the ER today, had little comparison with any other job; neither did the highlights - like possessing the ability to save the life of your best friend. But it wasn't this extreme of his chosen profession that was the biggest draw. The day-to-day stuff, curing the most mundane of ailments could make such a huge difference to someone's perception of their existence, or just being there to lend a sympathetic ear was what gave him his kicks.
In total contrast to the long hours he spent at the hospital, BBQ Bob's was a great place to relax. Jesse enjoyed pottering around the kitchen and waiting table, and to Steve's utter bemusement, he found keeping the accounts fascinating. And then there was helping Mark, Steve and Amanda with their cases. When he had first walked through the doors of Community General he hadn't envisaged becoming involved in homicide investigations, and strangely, Mark had taught him more about life by questioning death.
But more than any of that he had found a family. Jesse would never be disrespectful of how his mother had provided for him, and he was sure that when she had the time, she loved him; and thanks to Mark's persuasiveness he had rekindled a relationship with his true father, but the sense of belonging was never as great as when he was with his friends. He loved them. Would do anything for them. And they had already proved they would do the same for him. Oh, he knew he annoyed them sometimes and, in truth, once he had found out he could, he occasionally did irritating things on purpose, just to see their reactions. He was mischievous like that.
If he had the energy he would have thought up something impish to do now, just to alleviate some of the tension around him. He wished he wasn't the cause of their anguish. Exasperation directed his way he could deal with, but desolation he could not.
Mark appeared again at his side, or rather the blob in his vision that he currently associated with the older man, and after a short whispered discussion which his hearing had apparently elected to deprive him of, Amanda's shadow slipped away after planting a tender kiss on his forehead.
"Jesse, I know you're having a hard time breathing, and I'm sure you could do with a rest," said Mark kindly, and almost directly into his ear guaranteeing the message was delivered to his tired brain.
Jesse nodded carefully, so as not to upset the rhythm he had fought so hard to achieve. He had heard rales in some of his patients - it was unnerving to experience first hand what they felt like, too.
"If we were in the hospital, I would have had to intubate you," Mark explained.
Jesse nodded again. He was attuned to the quirks of the man he looked up to most in the world, and somehow, around the fog in his brain, he could tell where this peculiarly one-sided conversation was going.
"Well, I want to try something "
Steve padded into his bedroom, shed his saturated clothes and threw on some old sweats. He would not have considered himself a religious man, but he kept finding himself praying. Any deity would do, and he idly wondered which might have the best track record in keeping brave, funny, kindhearted young doctors alive against all the odds.
He didn't know what life would be like without Jesse in it - didn't, in actuality, want to consider it. Steve couldn't remember exactly how Jesse had wangled his way into their lives other than being his father's most promising intern. One day, he just seemed to be there with them investigating some murder or another, performing the task he'd volunteered for with almost comical thoroughness. And now it seemed as if the time before that was a weird vacuum, like an 'Anno Doctor Travis/Before Jesse' kind of thing.
Steve owed his life to the young man. When his father couldn't possibly have borne the responsibility of operating on his severely wounded body, Jesse had. And then when Mark was wrongly incarcerated for the following months, it was Jesse and Amanda who Steve had found at his bedside time and again, aiding his recovery with their unfailing support. They had managed to organize their shifts such that he was only very rarely alone, and instead of catching up on his paperwork in the Doctor's Lounge, Jesse would take an armful of charts to Steve's room. CJ was only a baby then, and Amanda had needed to go home, so Jesse's share of the vigil had been the greater of the two. Steve had never told him, but a couple of times he'd roused, hazily, to find a tousled blond head resting in slumber on his bed.
Now, Steve had to be there for his friend. But if they couldn't get him to hospital, then he didn't know how they were going to save him. If there was ever a time when he wished any influence he might have merited as a cop would count for something it was at that very moment, but he couldn't very well drive through streets full of grid-locked traffic even with the advantage of a red strobe.
No. He would just have to hope someone was looking down on them and could see what the despair at the prospect of losing one so dear was doing to them all, and take pity. Jesse had touched so many lives with his affable, helpful nature in ways both big and small, it just would defy all the laws of fairness if he were allowed to die.
It had only taken a few minutes for Steve to change, but when he emerged from his room he found Mark already back in fresh clothes and starting to lay some items out on a tray he'd set beside Jesse's supine form. Some had come from the medical bag, but the detective cringed at those he recognized as having come from the kitchen.
"Dad?" he questioned, picking up the metal spatula he'd used to turn the eggs with, only that morning.
"Put that down. I've just sterilized it," his father admonished him.
What? Was the first question to run through Steve's mind, followed close on its heels by - Why? and When had he had time to do that? He looked at the other gathered objects with awe. Along with a bowl of water, a couple of flannels and some towels, which perhaps had the most obvious purpose and were definitely the least innocuous; there was also some tubing which was from the wine-making kit they'd used on only one occasion he could recall, a roll of duct tape, a small flashlight and a balloon pump. His mind was doing cartwheels at what Mark could possibly be proposing to do with the collection.
Amanda came back downstairs. "They're still asleep," she said, presumably having just checked on her children. She crossed over to him. "Steve, about earlier I'm sorry. I said some dreadful things. I was just just so scared."
Steve had known that. He had been too. Still was, in fact, but not now for the children. "It's okay, and I'm sorry, too," he replied, softly. "You know, we'd really been having a good day, until "
The pathologist smiled, briefly, lighting her attractive features, but her gaze drifted toward Jesse and her expression morphed into one of incalculable grief. "Are you ready, Mark?" she inquired.
"Ready? Ready for what? What are you going to do?" Steve asked, nervously looking from his father to the tray and back again, and thinking that maybe he really wouldn't want to find out.
Forward to part two
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