DISCLAIMER: "Diagnosis Murder" and all its wonderful characters belong to Viacom and CBS. This is fan fiction only; no money is being made.
A/N: This story takes place in 1998, two years after S3E7 "Love is Murder." For the purposes of the story, I've condensed the DM timeline so it's been 5 months since the resolution of the "Retribution" storyline and Cheryl and Steve have been partners for 3 months. Reviews are appreciated! Thanks to everyone who has already left one.
"And Nothing Else Matters"
"Oh my," nurse Brandt suddenly said, eyes narrowing at her quarry as he walked down the corridor. She felt the heat of fury and hatred rush into her cheeks and giggled girlishly, knowing her companions would take the flush in that way and not the truth. "He's what my daughter would call a hunk."
While that was true, it was also true her daughter, her beloved little angel, was dead. And it was all his fault.
Dr. Sloan followed her gaze and smiled before returning his attention to the chart in his hand. "Please. Don't let him hear you say that," he said, though his eyes twinkled merrily.
Annie felt a surge of loathing for the white-haired doctor, gloating over what he still had and she didn't – a child. It was his fault and she'd make him pay. And that would make the old coot pay; he had raised a killer, after all, and didn't deserve her pity or remorse when she took his child away.
"Don't tell me you're afraid it would go to his head?" Dr. Bentley defended the cop. "I mean, yeah, if it was Jesse I could see that. But not Steve."
"Oh no," Dr. Sloan said, more than a touch of pride in his voice. Annie wanted to smack him. That cop, that killer wasn't anything to be proud of. "I promised him I'd stay out of his love life and quit trying to set him up on blind dates."
"Lydia?" Bentley wanted to know.
"Lydia," he confirmed. "If he hears you, Annie, he'll think I planned it and I'd never hear the end of it."
"Oh. Oh my," she said, flustered, as if she didn't already know. "He's your son?"
"Guilty," Dr. Sloan averred as the blue-eyed devil joined them.
The cop smiled at all of them, softening the planes of his face, and it was all Annie could do not to pummel that smug look off his face. She curled her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms. She hadn't expected such a strong reaction to the murderer and only thoughts of her angel and all the work she'd already put into getting justice for her daughter kept her from taking the scalpel from her smock pocket and plunging it into his chest. He had to pay. For Lynn. For the justice denied her while she lived and in her death. Annie couldn't let her first meeting with him blow it all to hell.
"Do I want to know what you're guilty of, Dad?"
Steve Sloan had an easy smile, though Annie wasn't supposed to know who he was, so she suffered through the introductions and fantasized about ramming her blade into his eye when he shook her hand and that's when she knew she had to get out of there.
She excused herself and hurried off, part of her mind on her hospital duties, but most of it on the man she'd finally met and the revenge that would soon be hers. And Lynn's.
"You're sure?" Annie Brandt asked, hand hovering over the door handle but not yet engaging.
He didn't respond, only stared at her with his dead eyes, shark's eyes. Cops had failed them – her and Lynn – the legal system had failed them. Besides, cops had started it all. So she took the money she'd saved for her daughter's wedding and used it to buy snake venom and someone to wield it.
Annie glanced down at the umbrella he held loosely by its handle like a cane.
"He didn't see you?"
The dead eyes narrowed at her. "It was busy in the courthouse," he allowed at last. "Easy to stage an accidental run-in."
They were in Community General Hospital's parking lot, as far as Annie had been able to park from the building itself. It was probably an unnecessary precaution but one she felt she had to take anyway. If anyone happened to see them, they wouldn't know what they were seeing, and she was still new enough not to have made many friends who'd wonder about the man they saw her with during her lunch hour.
"He suspected nothing," offered the man whose name Annie didn't know – for some reason she had taken to calling him Winston in her head. He stroked the umbrella gun, what he had used – supposedly – to inject the venom into Lt. Sloan.
Annie sighed, opening the car door and retrieving the duffel bag full of small bills. Winston hadn't failed her yet – unlike the cops – so she handed him the bag. Still for Lynn; just not how it was supposed to be used.
"Here's the rest of it." Then, when he was turning away, "Where did you get him?"
"The leg." He hesitated, and Annie found herself staring in fascination. He looked … curious, almost, the first emotion she had seen him display in their working acquaintanceship. "You trust your poison?"
Oddly touched by his concern, by his unspoken offer to finish off the lieutenant in a more immediate fashion than the venom promised had Annie turning the full brilliance of her smile on him. Back in her day, she'd been told often enough what that did to a man. "Thank you. But no. He's not the only one who needs to suffer before he dies."
Winston tipped his chin at her and left, umbrella and duffel bag in hand.
She hadn't known that as she plotted her revenge on the man who took her child but after meeting his father, after seeing his pride – pride! – in that murderer she knew Dr. Sloan needed to pay too. He had raised a killer, had shaped him through childhood and into adulthood so he needed to watch the lieutenant die, to understand the grief and emptiness of losing a child. To watch his twisted line expunged from the Earth, his punishment for bringing it into the world in the first place.
To that end, Annie had carefully diluted the boomslang venom with normal saline and measured out a smaller dose than she had initially planned and given it to Winston to inject into the lieutenant. Honesty compelled her to admit that after meeting him three days ago, her hatred demanded she kill him in a far more intimate manner than the cold remoteness of poison.
The saline should delay the onset of symptoms beyond even the hours, sometimes more than 24, it usually took; even putting off the bleeding depending on his activity. Even if the dilution proved lethal, she could always step in and be his savior, fortuitously explain her experience in this arena, and have the antivenin in time to temporarily stave off his death.
It appealed to her, this gaining unparalleled access to her victim while he was hospitalized to torment through one or two more false alarms before finally taking her scalpel blade to him in front of his father and killing him slowly and messily like the monster he was deserved.
She had no intention of leaving CGH alive. Lynn was gone, taking the joy of Annie's life with her. She had no one and nothing else waiting for her, not anymore. As long as Lt. Sloan only left the hospital for the funeral home, she'd die in peace. And maybe find her lost happiness again.
"Hey. You alright?" Cheryl asked, sitting on the edge of his desk.
Steve dropped the hand that had been trying – unsuccessfully – to rub the incipient headache from between his eyes. "Yeah. I'm fine."
"Mmhmm. You look it, too, Steve," she said in a manner that suggested anything but.
Wincing as an icepick stabbed into his forehead, Steve muttered, "Long day in court." He could feel Cheryl's eyes on him, practically feel the disapproval wafting off her in waves and realized he had closed his eyes against the brightness of the squad room. He forced them open. "I really am fine, Cheryl."
Cheryl stared at him for a long minute in which Steve tried to look innocently healthy. Finally, she rolled her eyes. "Your dad really needs to buy you a dictionary, Sloan, so you can look up the definition of that word. Because I don't think it means what you think it does."
Steve gaped at her a moment before grinning despite himself. "I don't believe this. You're quoting pop culture at me, Cheryl?"
Cheryl grinned. "What we could do is enlarge the definition, include pictures of what it does and does not look like, laminate it, and make copies. I'm thinking four ought to do it: your desk, your truck, your bathroom, the refrigerator. That way you can check it before opening your mouth."
Steve gave a short bark of laughter and was rewarded with Cheryl's smile.
"Sloan. My office!"
Steve surged to his feet at Captain Newman's shout. His vision drained away, leaving a field of gray. He wobbled dizzily. Sound cut out and then returned in a cacophony of noise.
He hit his chair abruptly, somehow jarring his vision back to normal.
"Steve? Steve, can you hear me?"
He became aware of a hand on his arm and Cheryl crouched down in front of him. She sounded scared. Hell, she looked scared. It came to Steve that he shouldn't scare his partner so he dredged up a smile from somewhere and gave it to her.
"Yeah. I hear you. Sorry about that. I'm fi—"
Her hand tightened. "You say that word again, Sloan, and I'll wash your mouth out with soap. See if I don't."
She suddenly looked mad enough to do it too – or worse.
He gaped at her again, wondering what he could possibly say to take that particular glint out of her eyes. She was frowning, too, and he swore her bottom lip was trembling. Ah, hell.
"I stood up too fast, that's all. It made me dizzy." Steve grabbed at the first explanation that came to mind and watched Cheryl's expression change. "Low blood sugar, you know. I forgot to eat at the courthouse without you there nagging me it was lunchtime."
"Me?" she shot back. "Nag you? About food? I think you need to see your dad. You're delusional."
A fist rapped sharply on Steve's desk, and he adroitly side-stepped that particular topic. For now, at least.
"How was court?" Newman demanded.
Steve opened his mouth, remembered Cheryl's warning and paused, stymied.
He needn't have worried. Newman jumped into the silence. "You look like crap, Sloan. Banks, take him home. I'll see you two back here in the morning. Now get the hell outta here."
"Uh, Cheryl, my apartment's that way."
"Yup," she agreed, guiding him none-too-gently up another stair. "But I only brought you home under the proviso your dad checks you out."
Steve made a sound somewhere between aggravation and frustration though it came out more like a whimper.
"Suck it up, Sloan," Cheryl replied equably, as if he had actually spoken a recognizable language. "Better you doing these stairs than your dad running up and down them."
She had him there, Steve decided glumly. He just hadn't realized before how many stairs the beach house contained. He could only give in to her relentless pressure to climb as all his concentration went into not hurling all over the steps, himself, and Cheryl. He was certain he'd be as fine as he professed if his damn head would just stop hurting.
Abruptly he realized they had stopped moving. Then Cheryl maneuvered him down onto the couch, as if he were an invalid. His stomach swooped uncomfortably down into his toes and he clamped his mouth shut as it bounced back into place. Damn, damn, damn.
"Steve?" Cheryl sounded faintly alarmed.
He grimaced an apology, a reassurance, and steadfastly refused to let anything pass his lips.
A slight dip in the cushion beside him and cool fingers kneading the back of his neck told him he had shut his eyes, and he willed them open.
Cheryl was frowning again, and he recognized that expression all too well. Steve sighed noiselessly and tried to head it off.
"Couldn't wait to get your hands on me, could you?"
Her forehead didn't smooth out and her next words proved she refused to be deflected. "I shouldn't have let you talk me out of taking you to the hospital."
"Hey. I didn't say anything. That was all you."
"You looked it," Cheryl groused. "Know I can't refuse that look."
She sounded so disgusted Steve grinned, boyishly pleased. His head didn't hurt so much either. "Which look?" he asked innocently.
Cheryl lightly slapped his arm and retreated to the kitchen. Soon he heard running water and cupboard doors opening and closing. Steve leaned back, took an experimental deep breath. No nausea, no dizziness. Okay. This was bearable. This was good.
He cautiously put his badge and holstered gun on the coffee table. That felt pretty good, so he leaned forward, rubbing his shin where someone had jammed their umbrella yesterday afternoon. It felt bruised under the fabric of his slacks. To top it off, it felt like he had a spider bite in the center of it. He idly wondered if that's where his symptoms came from.
A quick glance told him Cheryl was coming back so Steve switched the motion to pull off his shoes. Bad idea. It left him light-headed and carefully dragging in air. He sank against the back of the couch.
"You are the absolute end, you know that?" Cheryl chided.
Steve squinted up at her, disconcerted, as she bent over and tugged his shoes off, setting them aside. He felt his face flush at the unexpected kindness.
"What, Steve?" she asked in an off-handed fashion as she handed him a couple of pills and a glass of water. "It's not something to get used to. Besides … I'm not gonna let your dad come home to your shoes on his couch."
His head was aching again and that damn spider bite was throbbing in time to his heart so he gave up on figuring out how his shoes were going to get on the furniture and instead asked, "What did you give me?"
"Aspirin." Cheryl held up the bottle before setting it next to his badge. "I figure your dad's got a stash of the good stuff somewhere around here and he can give it to you when he gets home. He will be home soon, right? No. Finish it."
Steve obediently drank the last of the water, though he'd already washed the pills down. Cheryl adroitly plucked the glass from his hand and set it beside the bottle of aspirin.
"Um … yeah, 6:30."
"Good. Why don't you lie down until he gets here?"
As if he had a choice. Cheryl suited actions to words and soon had him on his side with his knees bent toward his chin. She tucked an afghan around him.
"Thanks," he mumbled.
"Hey, all part of the service. Don't go making a big deal out of it."
Steve grinned at her, but her return smile seemed strained. "Are you alright?"
She snorted softly. "I'm not the one with the killer headache from hell."
"That's not fair," Steve sputtered indignantly. "What am I … an open book for you and my dad to read?"
"Oh no. We have to watch you so closely because you never tell us how you really feel so we end up observing every little thing about you. It's like watching one of those wildlife documentaries.
"Don't look at me like that, Sloan. It's all your fault for not giving us an honest answer. Me and your dad are going to write a book: 'Steve Sloan 101' or maybe even 'Steve Sloan: The Definitive Guide to fine, okay, and alright. What it Really Means.'"
He chuckled, suddenly feeling better. "Okay. Maybe I deserve that."
She sat on the coffee table in front of him.
"So are you?" he persisted.
Her mouth tightened. "My aunt Agnes is expecting me, and I can't call to tell her I'm gonna be late. I don't want to worry her—"
"But you're worried about me," Steve finished, feeling even better. "Go. I'll be good as new with a little rest. And Dad will be home soon."
Cheryl still looked uncertain.
"I'm just going to snooze 'til Dad gets here so I'm not going to be good company." Steve offered her his best, most hopeful smile.
She huffed out a breath in exasperation. "Damn you, Sloan," she muttered. "You're certain?"
"Absolutely. I feel better already."
"Uh-huh. Where's your phone?"
She retrieved the cell from the suit jacket she had flung on the back of a chair when they'd first made it to the den and set it on the coffee table within easy reach. Then she refilled the water glass.
"Do you need anything before I go?" she asked, stalling.
"I'm good. And Cheryl" – Steve's hand snuck out from under the afghan and grasped hers – "thanks. For everything."
Her smile cracked the worry in her eyes. "Not a problem, partner. Call me if you need anything. I mean it, Steve. I'll check on you later."
Surprising him – and maybe herself, too, Steve couldn't tell for certain – she leaned over and kissed his cheek, folding his hand under his chin. "You get some shuteye, Steve," she murmured and kissed him again, this time on the edge of his mouth.
Too shocked to respond, he watched her straighten up and walk away.
Mark was duly uneasy when he pulled into the driveway and didn't see Steve's truck anywhere. Steve and Cheryl had an amazing close rate, the highest in Homicide, and as a result spent more than their fair share of time at the courthouse giving testimony. Mark knew they had spent all day yesterday there and today Cheryl was at the precinct attempting to catch up on paperwork while Steve would be returning to court testifying in cases Cheryl hadn't been a part of when he'd been loaned to both Vice and Robbery. So, Mark had expected him home already.
He had learned long ago to live with the invasive fear that Steve could be killed in the line of duty. As a result, Mark looked at Steve's frequent court appearances with near giddiness because it meant that his son should be safe off the streets for an entire day – no matter how much the younger Sloan hated being benched, even if it was a necessary part of his job. It was just one he didn't enjoy.
Mark tried to tell himself Steve and Cheryl had gone out to celebrate an end to the onerous court appearances for another month, he was just unwinding after completing a tedious chore and his absence meant nothing more than that. It didn't work.
He let himself into the house and decided to risk Steve's good-natured annoyance and just call him to see where he was. Better yet, instead of calling to blatantly check up on his son, he'd helpfully suggest Steve pick up something for supper on his way home from the courthouse and let his offspring share what he was doing and when he might be home without Mark sticking his nose in his personal life. That way Steve couldn't accuse him of hovering and Mark could set his mind at ease.
Only that's not what happened.
A soft glow came from the kitchen, as if the range hood light was on, which didn't make sense. Mark hadn't turned it on this morning and Steve wasn't home. Unless … Mark smiled as an alternate explanation came to him. Unless Steve had been home but left for some reason, leaving the light on because he'd soon return. Not looking too closely at this theory because he didn't want to see all the holes in it, Mark flipped on an overhead light and a lamp on in the den.
There on the sofa lay the object of his thoughts.
While a small part of his mind grappled with the missing truck but sleeping son, most of it reveled in Steve's presence. Mark was struck – as he always was in those rare times he could unashamedly watch his son sleep – how easy it was to see the child he had been under the man's face. It was these occasions that forcefully reminded him that Steve, despite his years, was still just a boy; still Mark's boy, young and tousle-headed. In his mind's eye, he could almost see Katherine sitting with him, rubbing their son's back soporifically as she had done so often while he was growing up.
Mark felt a sudden blocky lump in his throat and cleared it. He stepped closer, meaning to brush away the hair that fell over his son's eyes, giving in to the nostalgia of the moment, but the movement dispelled the haze of memory and he paused instead.
Steve's gun, badge, and phone lay on the coffee table along with a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. Hadn't he been downstairs at all? He always kept his gun in a nightstand next to his bed when he wasn't wearing it. An afghan lay crumpled on the floor in front of the sofa. Mark thought his son looked pale in the artificial light and gently pressed the back of his fingers against his forehead.
Steve woke with a start. "Dad?"
He sounded muzzy and something else Mark couldn't quite identify but which raised paternal alarm bells.
Steve sat up while Mark picked up the afghan and folded it, draping it over the back of a chair. Steve definitely looked pale. Concerned and wanting an answer other than his son's stock replies that rarely meant what they intended, Mark tried a gentle, back door approach. "I didn't expect to find you here," he said mildly, and then in appeal to his son's protectiveness as well as good nature, "I tell you, it nearly took ten years off my life, seeing you when I turned on the light."
Steve looked confused for far too long for Mark's liking, as if he couldn't track where his father was going or as if he couldn't cast far enough back in his memory. Mark didn't know which concerned him more. Steve hadn't felt feverish … if anything, maybe a little cool to the touch.
"Oh." Steve ran a hand down his face and downed half the water in a single loud gulp. He looked marginally more awake. "Cheryl brought me home."
"Funny … you don't smell like alcohol." Steve wouldn't leave his truck anywhere unless he felt unfit to drive. There were no obvious signs of injuries and Mark couldn't think what else would make him accept a ride from someone else. Maybe car problems? But things were rarely that simple with his son.
"Crap," Steve murmured.
Mark looked on in bemusement and finally prompted "Steve?" when nothing else seemed forthcoming.
He blinked up at his father, took another drink. "Captain Newman said that's how I looked. Told Cheryl to take me home."
"Ah … I see. And how are you feeling now?"
Mark placed a hand on the back of his son's neck, assessing. No, his son's temperature was definitely not elevated or normal. Most concerning, he didn't protest Mark checking or shrug off Mark's hand or even complain.
"And the aspirin?"
"Cheryl gave it to me," Steve supplied. "Headache."
His son's docile demeanor and answers were unnerving.
"Isn't Newman back yet?"
Mark looked around the den, half expecting the captain to pop up out of nowhere. "Was he here?"
Steve said nothing else, absently rubbing at his leg.
"Steve? Why is Newman coming? I thought Cheryl brought you home."
"She did. She had to go."
Steve shifted his focus from his leg to his head.
The alarm bells were clanging discordantly in Mark's mind now.
"She didn't want to leave me," Steve said suddenly. "Where's Newman? We have to help Cheryl."
He stood abruptly, color draining fast from his face. He sat as precipitously. Mark put a restraining hand on Steve's shoulder, marshalling his agitated confusion.
"Did someone take Cheryl?" he asked sharply, giving his son a shake, trying to focus him.
Steve looked at his hand, still somehow holding the glass, and finished off the water. He moved to put it back on the coffee table, and Mark took it from him.
"No. Her aunt needed her." Steve angled a puzzled look at his father. "Are you okay, Dad?"
Mark would've laughed or pulled out his hair if he wasn't so alarmed. "Steve—"
His son's face took on a greenish tinge and the expression he saw there sent Mark bolting for the trashcan beside his desk.
He only just made it back to Steve in time, thrusting it between his feet just as he forcefully expelled the contents of his stomach. Steve leaned precariously over the can and Mark kept one hand on his shoulder supportively. He rubbed Steve's back soothingly with the other, as he had done when his son had been a small boy. Funny how he had recalled Katherine doing the same thing just a little while ago.
When Steve finished, he leaned back, breathing raggedly. Mark stroked the hair from his face.
Steve winced, looked up at his father. "I don't feel so good, Dad."
Which left Mark's mouth hanging open. The voluntary admission coupled with eschewing one of his favorite phrases froze Mark. The father in him panicked at this uncharacteristic vulnerability, blindingly eclipsing every doctor's instinct he possessed, and he stood stunned without the least idea of what to do next.
Surely he couldn't have been paralyzed for long – surely he would've broken it himself – when the phone rang, jangling along with Mark's nerves.
He ignored the phone in favor of his son, furious at himself for his momentary indecision. The phone rang on.
"Dad," Steve said tiredly. "That'll be Cheryl."
"She doesn't need backup," Mark said roughly, trying to ground Steve in the moment and not off on one of these disorienting tangents. "I need to get my bag and examine you."
The phone seemed to scream at him.
"Dad." Steve's eyes were lucid as he met his father's. "Cheryl was going to check up on me. She was worried." His speech was starting to slur.
Mark snatched up the phone. "Hello?" he barked.
As soon as Mark recognized her voice, he interrupted. "Get an ambulance out to the beach house now, Cheryl. It's Steve." And hung up on any reply she may have made.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, Mark thought, trying to rein in his emotions and his reactions to them. He had diagnosed Steve with idiopathic hemorrhaging at the beach house, confirmed by Jesse here in the ER. He had discovered Steve's severely bruised leg, sluggishly weeping serous blood, in the ambulance.
"Charge to 200."
"Charging to 200."
The charge jolted through Steve's body. Nothing.
"Charging to 300."
The screaming warning cut off.
"Okay. Good job, everyone," Jesse said, stepping back. "I want him intubated and on a unit of O neg blood, stat. Type and match another three units. Move it, people."
A nurse started the lactated ringer's wide open and another set up a central IV, activities interrupted when Steve had coded.
"Where's that portable x-ray?" Jesse snapped.
Coded – twice already – on a court day. A day when Mark wasn't supposed to have to worry about his son. Just one or two days a month when the ever-present fear, buried deep in Mark's consciousness so that he could breathe, could be unshackled and forgotten. Was that too much to ask? One or two days out of 30 or 31. Why was that asking too much?
Mark knew of fathers who only had to worry about their grown children, about a truly life-threatening event, maybe once or twice in a lifetime. And Mark couldn't escape it, even when by all rights Steve should've been safe. Just for once.
"How're you holding up, Mark?" Jesse asked quietly.
Mark rapidly blinked the moisture from his eyes.
"Oh, you know," he said evasively with a twist of his lips.
It was like when Oz Tatum had shot Steve. It was worse. Then at least Mark had known what had happened and it made sense in a hideously sick way: two bullets in the chest and one in the abdomen and Steve went down. Now, though, he hadn't a single idea as to what had caused the blood loss that took his son down. He couldn't get past it was a court day. I don't feel so good, Dad played on an endless loop in Mark's memory. It left him as useless and superfluous as Tatum's bullets had.
"He's strong, Mark," Jesse said earnestly. "He's a fighter."
"But what is he fighting?" Mark's voice quavered like an old man's.
"Dr. Travis," a nurse said, rushing into the room, distracting both doctors. "PTT is 29. Hematocrit 15."
On her heels came the portable x-ray machine and Jesse ordered both abdominal and chest films.
Mark stood back against the wall, mind reeling. He knew Steve was suffering from idiopathic hemorrhaging but to hear his protime made it blindingly real. From what? Mark couldn't wrap his head around it, around any of it. The last two days had been court days – Steve should've been safe. Mark hadn't realized before how much he relied on that comfort, on that safety and now that sanctity had been breached and he didn't know how to come back from that.
"Mark." Jesse's countenance was as somber as his voice, drawing Mark's eyes first and always to the figure on the examination table and then to what Jesse was saying. "That's not a spider bite on his leg. I've examined it carefully. It's a needle mark. We're running a full tox screen."
Mark briefly shut his eyes. No. I don't feel so good, Dad. No.
Jesse touched his arm, and Mark realized he probably looked as shocky as he felt. "Do you understand, Mark?"
Mark nodded, trying to get words past the stricture of his throat, leaning hard into the wall, all that was holding him upright. That sanctity breached and looted, a silly old man's wish for one safe place for his son blown away like smoke on the wind.
"He went jogging last night," he murmured.
He saw the moment Jesse understood what that apparent non sequitur meant. Steve had told them when he felt the 'bite' on his leg, over 24 hours already, and then he'd jogged on the beach to regain his equilibrium after a stressful day at court. So the poison that had been injected into him was no longer confined to that limb but had been forced vigorously throughout his system.
"We don't even know what he was given," was as close as Mark could come to admitting his greatest fear, his worst nightmare.
"We know it's a hemotoxin," Jesse countered and though he tried to inject some confidence into his voice, it came out as shaky as Mark's had. "He's already on blood and IV therapy, Mark. He's on a ventilator. It'll buy us time to find out what he was given."
"And if it doesn't?" Never had Mark felt every one of his 70-some-odd years so acutely before.
"Don't tell me you're giving up on him?"
"I'm so sorry, Dr. Sloan," Cheryl said quietly.
They stood outside Steve's ICU room while Jesse and a nurse set Steve up with fresh frozen plasma and checked his vital signs. The initial tox screen unsurprisingly came back negative, though there were a few tests that needed more time to garner a result. Mark held no hope they'd come up with anything. He had called the Central Screening Laboratory and told them they had a patient with a suspected hemotoxic poisoning without any idea what it was. His voice had broken in naming the patient, and they said send them blood and urine and they'd test against every known poison and toxin they had.
By the time the blood had been drawn and the samples sent via medical courier along with the pertinent medical history, such as it was, Steve had slipped into a coma. Mark hadn't left him since, save this quick trip to the doorway where he could still keep his son in sight.
"Sorry? Whatever for, Cheryl?"
Cheryl, tough, self-assured veteran cop was in tears.
"For leaving him alone. I had no idea, Dr. Sloan, he was this—"
She broke off as Mark settled his hands on her shoulders and gave her a shake. Steve's words echoed in his head: She didn't want to leave me.
"You couldn't have known. And his symptomology hadn't fully presented itself. It wasn't your fault, Cheryl," he added, voice deepening.
Her face crumpled, as if his forgiveness was more than she could take in.
Mark pulled her in for a brief hug, trying to keep his own feelings under control. "And, please, call me Mark. You've partnered with Steve long enough to earn that right."
Cheryl breathed a shaky laugh. She visibly pulled herself together, settling into police mode. "We're checking Steve's current and old case files, looking for anything with a similar MO or sophistication to pull it off or money to buy it or motive for revenge. That's a lot of files to go through and nothing has panned out yet." She shook her head at the seeming futility of it and continued briskly. "I didn't get a good look at the man who bumped into him so that's a non-starter. We're looking into umbrella guns and how easy they are – or aren't – to manufacture and obtain." They'd all agreed that the umbrella had somehow been the mode of delivery for the poison now flooding his son. "We're going under the assumption that this was a targeted attack and not random and hope it doesn't bite us in the ass."
"No," Mark said; this was the only thing he felt confident about. "It was deliberate. Steve was the intended victim all along."
Cheryl nodded, blinked back tears. "That's what both the captain and Chief figure too. There's going to be a cop outside ICU in case there's a second attempt."
Mark wasn't sure what he felt about that. Surely his son would be safe in hospital? But if someone had hired poison, that didn't mean they'd stick to poison the next time. If there was a next time.
"I think you've already had half the precinct down here donating blood." There was a wistfulness in her tone, a sadness she was trying not to express. "I'm sure you'll have the other half in and out all day today."
Mark attempted a smile.
The nurse slipped past them while Jesse stopped. His expression was unusually grave. "He's holding his own, Mark." It was the most reassuring thing he could offer. His next words took Mark by surprise: he hadn't realized it was so late already. Or early actually. Steve had been hospitalized for nearly 12 hours. "My shift is over in an hour. Why don't you get some rest then, Mark? I'll sit with him."
Mark didn't try to articulate the suffocating fear that smothered him at the thought of leaving his son, the fear that if he left his side now he'd never see him alive again, never have a chance to tell him everything he meant to Mark. Why hadn't he told him? Surely Steve knew already. Didn't he? Mark shut his eyes against the tears burning away his vision. Now he may never know.
He peeled back lids from what felt like acid and said, "Thank you, Jesse. But I can't leave my son."
Before he could stumble blindly back to the chair next to his son's bed, Cheryl gently caught his arm. Cheryl, who's expression showed her thoughts clearly when it came to Steve, looked ready to burst into tears. She didn't want to leave me. "Can I see him? Please. Just for a moment." Her voice was tight with barely restrained grief and regret and pain.
Mark hesitated, silently told Steve to hold on. "You know, stretching my legs wouldn't go amiss. Do you mind sitting with him for a few minutes?"
Cheryl wore the answer on her face. She startled Mark by throwing her arms around him and pecking his cheek.
Mark followed her with his eyes to Steve's bedside before he turned with Jesse and left the ICU.
"I'll check on him in a little bit," Jesse said. "Maybe you should think about eating something while you're out stretching."
"I'm not really hungry, Jess."
"You're not going to do him any good by not taking care of yourself. And I really don't want to get an earful from him when he wakes up and finds you passed out on the floor from exhaustion and starvation." He added challengingly, "Do you?"
The optimism behind the thought almost made Mark smile. "I wouldn't mind listening to anything he had to say right now." His voice wavered baldly.
Jesse's expression fell, humor dying in the face of the uncertainty surrounding his best friend.
Mark touched his shoulder, letting him know he wasn't angry, that he appreciated the attempt at good cheer. But Steve was the only one he could have silent conversations with, and Steve was in ICU.
"Dr. Travis to the ER. Dr. Travis to the ER."
The PA system erupted before Mark could find the words to voice his gratitude. His mind was full of and only on his son, ironically garroting his loquaciousness, even though Steve was the one person in all the world he didn't even need words to communicate with.
"You better go, Jess," Mark said when the other doctor didn't move.
"I'll be back soon. He's the strongest man I know, Mark. He survived Oz Tatum – even when I didn't think he could. He can survive this. You can't give up on him. He needs you to have faith for the both of you."
Mark offered a small, genuine smile for Jesse's earnestness. "You're right, Jess. Don't worry. I haven't given up hope."
"Yeah? Good. Because I don't think I can lose both of you."
A second page had Jesse reluctantly going off to the ER with a promise to be back soon.
Mark stared after him and that's where Amanda found him a few minutes later.
"Mark. I just heard. Why didn't you call me?"
"You were with your son." His voice broke on that last precious word.
Amanda pulled him into a hug, and Mark felt the tears threatening and his face working with emotions he battled to bring under control.
"My boy is safe and sound. It's yours I'm worried about."
And Mark nearly lost it right there.
Amanda kept a steadying arm around him and propelled him into motion. Mark took in the concern and sympathy and pity on so many of the faces bustling throughout the corridors and didn't want to deal with any of them; he thought he'd crumble to dust if he had to answer them. When Amanda's steps seemed directed to the doctors' lounge, Mark steered her away, back toward ICU. It had been long enough. It had been too long.
"When was the last time you ate something, Mark?" Amanda asked gently.
"I don't honestly remember." He refused to allow her to change their destination. "I don't think I could choke anything down right now anyway."
"I thought he was better … you weren't with him when I got here."
Mark saw the mortification and concern and guilt in her face. "Cheryl wanted to see him."
They wound their way through ICU, back to Steve's room.
"How is he?" She sounded as lost as Mark felt.
"As good as can be expected without knowing what he was poisoned with."
Cheryl glanced up from behind the glass and met Mark's eyes for a moment. She leaned over, kissing Steve's forehead and got up.
"Mark," Amanda said, diverting his attention momentarily from the bed. "Steve's my friend too. I want to be here for him. For you. Don't not call me again. He means a lot to all of us."
Mark nodded gamely and patted her hand as Cheryl joined them. "You know, I really hope there is a next time. Because that would mean he survived this."
Amanda pulled him into another quick hug. "Me too. Go sit with him. I'll bring you something to eat. No arguing. You need your strength, Mark. You have to be strong enough for both of you."
For his son, Mark could be anything.
Annie Brandt recorded the vitals in the patient's chart. The dilution had worked in that Lt. Sloan wasn't dead yet, but it was only a matter of time. He needed the antivenin. Which was fine with Annie. She doubted he could feel pain, at least not as acutely as she wanted him to, and while the doctor was certainly suffering, it was time that the murderer did as well.
So Annie took a couple deep, quiet breaths and thought of Lynn as she prepared to talk about her husband.
She turned from the patient monitors and faced Dr. Sloan, sitting stock-still at his son's bedside, as if the least movement would shatter him into a 1000 pieces, and felt a wave of abhorrence inundate her that he was able to sit with his dying son, being there in his son's last moments. It wasn't fair. Steve Sloan hadn't given her that option. Goddamn him; damn him straight to hell, where he belonged.
"How on Earth did he get bitten?" she demanded, using the furor in her heart to lend outraged disbelief to her tone. "Don't tell me you actually keep one as a pet?"
Dr. Sloan's head snapped up, blue eyes focusing on her for the first time since she came in to check the lieutenant's vitals and draw blood. "Beg pardon?" His voice sounded like gravel scraped across asphalt.
Annie waved the chart distractedly, fighting the smirk that threatened everything. "Boomslang venom." She hung the chart as the doctor surged to his feet.
"Boomslang? How do you know?" he barked.
And suddenly Annie wasn't facing down an enemy, but a father terrified for his child, out of options and running out of time. She hated the keen empathy she felt for his plight, for the rawness in his face and voice, trying to deny what the machines and vitals were just barely starting to tell him.
But his son, his devil-child had taken her daughter, had taken her sweet angel and Annie ruthlessly strangled the inchoate sympathy.
"My husband. He died from a boomslang bite." Annie gestured helplessly at Steve's motionless form. "My Robert looked like this."
Amanda Bentley bustled into the room with a tray of food, which she hastily set down on the tray table, reacting to the tension. "Steve?"
Mark's hands were like iron as they closed around Annie's arms. "You're certain of this? Annie, are you sure?"
She hardened her heart to his fearful desperation and suddenly just wanted to get out of there, uncomfortable with even the tiniest slivers of understanding and heartbreak for what the father was going through.
"Yes. I left Santa Mira after she died and moved here. I couldn't stand to be around everything that reminded me of he-, him. Of him."
But neither doctor seemed to catch her error, looking first at each other, then down at the comatose man.
"They're not indigenous," Annie quickly explained, refusing to see the doctor as someone other than the father of the monster who murdered her little girl. "We didn't know that's what had bitten him – not at first. By the time we figured it out, it was too late and Robert died."
"Antivenin wouldn't be effective this far out," Amanda said softly, touching Mark's arm. Tears were pooling in her eyes and already falling out. "I'm so sorry, Mark."
The old doctor's face crumpled in devastation, and he turned away from both of them.
It cut straight to Annie's marrow, the anguish of a father about to lose his child. She firmly corralled her reactive compassion, like reaching out to like in the face of such wretchedness. She wanted to kill said child – said murderer – herself. She wanted him to know why, to let both Sloans know why so she wrangled the panic engendered by the father's impending loss and rallied.
"No," Annie said firmly. "Steve's not as far advanced as Robert was, not even close. There's still a chance. I'm going to call the Antivenin Bank in Florida and get it made." She held up the vials of blood and ran out of the room.
By some miracle it worked. Steve's vitals had improved at last check, the bleeding that had begun from his gums stopped, and the hard rigidness had left his abdomen. But Annie knew her time was winding down. She had given too much away in Sloan's room this morning. She hadn't even realized it until they'd finished the detective's infusion – using a staggering 26 vials rather than the normal two to three – and she finally had a moment to think as the antivenin took hold. Then she remembered what she'd said. Annie thought the doctor would recall it as well, though he still held fear and exhaustion and she had saved his son so maybe it wouldn't register. But she couldn't take that chance. To keep Dr. Sloan – to keep Lt. Sloan – off balance, she'd have to strike now.
So she prepared her gauze with staph and carefully put it back in its packaging and set out to the lieutenant's room to treat the venom injection site, which had widened beyond a simple needle mark and now needed a good cleaning.
Steve gradually became aware of sound: beeping, whooshing, voices over a PA system, rubber-soled shoes across linoleum. Then he became aware of sensation. His body ached, and someone gripped his hand hard. Something was in his throat, and he swallowed convulsively to dislodge it. It didn't work. The beeping increased its pace and the hand around his tightened. A voice close to his ear said,
"Easy, son. You're in the hospital. You had to be intubated. No, Steve. You have to leave it alone. I've sent for Jesse. He'll remove it if you can breathe on your own."
Steve knew that voice, though it sounded unwontedly concerned. Why was that? Another voice crackled over the PA.
Oh. Right. He was in the hospital.
He wished he could remember why.
"C'mon, son. Open your eyes for me."
The nuances in his father's voice pulled Steve more firmly awake. Something was wrong. Dad needed him.
He tried to lift his hand to yank at that thing clogging his throat, but he was too tired to fight the other hand. He tried anyway.
"Steve, you have to stop. Please, son … open your eyes."
He hadn't done that yet?
No … apparently not. Everything was still black.
Fingers brushed hair from his forehead, shocking him further awake. Dad. He knew it was Mark and he must be distraught over something, to touch him like that.
Oh yeah. He was supposed to open his eyes.
With what seemed like a herculean effort, Steve pried his eyelids up. His dad was leaning over him. He looked worried and as exhausted as Steve felt. He couldn't help Mark with the latter, but he smiled a little, trying to reassure him, though it was hard with that damn tube down his throat.
It was worth it, though, as a smile split his dad's face and his eyes lit up. His eyes were…. Wait. That couldn't be right. Steve blinked several times, looked back at his father's face. But Mark's eyes stayed misted over and on the brink of spilling, filling Steve with a guilt that defied all reason and with a desire to ease his dad's pain.
God, what had he done this time to warrant a stay in hospital?
Steve shifted as tears began to fall from Mark's overfull eyes and reached again for the tube.
Mark stopped him with a gentle hand. He was still smiling and instead of turning away – Steve knew how private his dad was and that he wouldn't want anyone – not even his son – to witness him lose control like this – he got another shock as Mark carefully eased one arm behind Steve's shoulder blades and pulled him up and to him in a fierce, gentle hug. His other hand cradled the back of Steve's head as though he were a small child.
"That was too close, son," Mark said gruffly in his ear. "I almost lost you. I don't mind telling you, you scared me."
The voice broke, and Steve thought he'd better figure out how he got here. He wanted to ask his dad. Gathering what strength he could find, Steve was able to lift one arm to embrace his dad. He wanted to tell him it was okay. He didn't have to worry about him anymore. He was fine.
A fleeting memory flitted across Steve's consciousness, and he smiled. He'd better not let Cheryl hear him say that.
That was how Jesse found them a couple of minutes later.
Mark gingerly laid Steve back in bed, blinking the moisture from his eyes.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," Jesse said, "is it ever good to see you awake." It was brightly said, though there was an undefined slouch in his carriage and he looked tired, too, though his grin teased the lines of strain and fatigue from his face.
Hell, what had he done, Steve wondered again.
"Okay, Mark, why don't you step out for a few minutes while I examine our boy and hopefully pull that tube out?"
Mark looked mutinous, and Steve grasped his father's sleeve, pulling him closer. He wasn't going to wait to talk to his dad. Mark flashed Jesse a triumphant look. Steve was relieved to see his father's eyes were dry now.
Jesse shrugged. "Okay, suit yourself." He didn't sound angry or particularly disappointed, and he didn't lose his smile.
Even when, after Steve proved he could breathe on his own, he pulled the tube out, leaving Steve swallowing hard and coughing in its wake.
"Here, son." Mark's brow furrowed, though his eyes still danced as he offered Steve a glass of water with a bendy straw jauntily stuck out of it. "Slow sips, son," he cautioned.
Steve obeyed, though his own cheeks were beginning to ache with how much the two doctors were grinning. It was starting to make him nervous.
It was as his dad took away the cup and raised the bed that Steve noticed the nurse who must've followed Jesse into the room. He remembered meeting her several days ago and offered her a distracted smile as he turned his full attention to Mark. He reached out for him and Mark took his hand again and held on, laying the other briefly against Steve's cheek, as if public displays of affection were the most natural things in the world.
Steve changed what he was going to say, instead asking, "Dad, are you alright?"
"Boy, I tell you, I am now. Never better." His voice had deepened, and the smile was back as was the suspicious brightness in his eyes.
Steve searched for any deceit and finding none, tried to convey his love and thanks and regret for whatever he had done to put those new lines in Mark's face. His dad's smile broadened, and he pulled Steve in for another quick hug, as if he couldn't help himself, conveying a whole host of thoughts and feelings.
"Dad, what the hell happened?"
"What's the last thing you remember, son?" Mark countered.
Like he hadn't been wondering that since he woke up. Steve said nothing, though, and cast his mind back – or deeper – digging for some sort of answer.
"I didn't feel well," he said at last, successfully excavating something. "Cheryl took me home. I vaguely remember an ambulance ride. You asked about my leg. And … I think I remember Jesse examining me here?" He said the last part as a question. He was uncertain if that was from this visit or a previous one; it had become too much of a common occurrence for him to be sure either way.
Mark nodded. "That was the day before yesterday."
Steve stared blankly at him.
"You coded on us," Mark added softly, the remembered despair sharp in his voice and expression. "More than once."
No wonder his dad looked like that; no wonder he kept looking at him like that. "I'm sorry, Dad," he said automatically, not really sure what he was apologizing for but feeling the need to for what Mark must have endured. "Was it the spider bite?"
Anger flashed in Mark's eyes, though Steve could readily tell it wasn't directed at him. "It wasn't a spider bite, son." Mark paused, and a haunted sorrow just as quickly replaced the unusual anger. "Someone deliberately poisoned you with snake venom. Thank God Annie was able to identify the snake based on your signs and symptoms."
He nodded to the nurse, his face drawn in remembered desolation. Steve quickly squeezed his dad's hand, offering another smile, though he really wanted to give in to his body's demand for more sleep. Jeez, Sloan, some cop you are – you find out you've been poisoned and all you want to do is nap. Maybe his dad's stunning lack of self-preservation was rubbing off on him.
To stay awake, to reassure his dad, Steve said, "I'm still here, Dad. It's alright."
"You just make sure it stays that way." The lightness of the tone didn't belie the command inherent in the words. "I kinda like having you around."
"Wait … poison? How?"
"We think it was the man who ran into you at the courthouse."
Steve quirked a brow at him, but then nodded slowly. "An umbrella gun." He had read about them.
"Don't worry, big guy," Jesse piped up. "Newman has a guard on ICU. You'll be safe here. Now let's take a look at that leg."
Steve couldn't stifle a yawn and grinned apologetically at his dad. He didn't try to keep his eyes open as Jesse continued his exam, mumbling answers to whatever Jesse asked and trying his damnedest to do whatever Jesse wanted, whatever it took to get him done so he could go back to sleep.
Finally, Jesse told the nurse to clean and dress his leg.
Steve dragged his eyelids up, and Jesse patted his shoulder. "Don't fight it, Steve. You need the rest. I'll be back in a little while."
"Go to sleep, son," Mark softly urged.
"You too," Steve croaked. His lids were too heavy and closed against his volition.
He felt a hand stroke his hair and his father's rumbling "I will" chased him into oblivion.
Steve woke as something jostled his arm. A nurse stood over him holding a syringe with very little liquid and a whole lot of air, at least according to his sleep fuzzy brain. She fumbled with the IV port, jostling him again, and depressed the plunger, sending the medication straight into his vein.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." She didn't sound sorry, and Steve recognized her as Annie.
A sudden pain flared through him, as if his blood were molten, and he caught his breath, stifling a gasp.
"It will burn for a couple of minutes," Annie said briskly. "I had hoped you'd sleep through it." The brightness in her tone belied the sentiment, and Steve glanced sharply at her. Her face lost the sneer and took on a look of concern and Steve wondered what he imagined and what was real.
He clenched his hands into fists and silently rode out the pain and missed his dad's arrival until he spoke.
"Annie, what are you doing here?"
Steve squinted his eyes open. The small bones of his hands ached from squeezing them so tightly. He realized with a start that he was trembling. Annie stood between him and his father, watching him with a happy smile.
"Oh. Dr. Sloan." Steve thought she looked guilty and altered her expression as she turned to his dad. "I just wanted to check on him before I went home. I kind of feel responsible for him … after everything…." She trailed off uncertainly.
"That's understandable," Mark said slowly, though his brow was slightly creased and the genial smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Steve was sleeping when breakfast was delivered," Annie said in a business-like fashion, stepping into Mark's personal space and turning him back toward the door, forcing him to fall into step beside her. "He must be ravenous. Do you want me to send breakfast up for the both of you?"
"You know, that would be wonderful, Annie." He sounded like he meant it.
Steve let out a shaky breath, the pain fading away. He opened his hands. She didn't have the best bedside manner in the world, but she was right about how long he would hurt.
Truthfully, breakfast didn't sound that great to him. He felt a little off but didn't want to say anything either – his dad had had enough to worry about lately. It wasn't as if he wanted to lie but his dad had already obviously neglected his health since all this started and Steve knew if Mark thought he wasn't feeling well, he'd neglect it even more. Steve couldn't let him do that. Mark acted young and always seemed so full of energy, but Steve was well aware of his dad's age and if Mark didn't want to take care of himself … well then it was Steve's responsibility to make sure he did.
Even if that meant resorting to little white lies or half-truths. Mark's health meant a hell of a lot more to Steve than it did to his dad. So be it. Knowing that, Steve would work with it.
He just had to fake it while his dad was here. Besides, it wasn't as if he'd been poisoned again, not with a cop outside the ICU.
Steve hadn't realized he'd drifted back to sleep until he flailed awake when somebody touched his shoulder.
"Sorry, son," Mark said contritely. "I thought you might be hungry."
"'m 'k," he mumbled.
Mark chuckled and adjusted the bed for Steve to a sitting position.
Breakfast smelled good at least and didn't make him queasy. Mark put the trays on the tray table.
Steve yawned hugely and found his dad staring intently at him. "How're you feeling, son?"
"Tired," he readily admitted. He added, when his dad opened his mouth, "But that's normal, isn't it?"
"Yes," Mark replied. "You lost a lot of blood. Fatigue is a normal result of that."
"If you hadn't taken so long, I wouldn't have fallen asleep. I was just bored waiting for you." Steve further deflected his dad, injecting lightness into their conversation to prove his wellness.
"Oh well … Cheryl wanted me to let her know when you woke up."
"She was worried about you, son. We all were. She'll stop by later today."
Steve grinned, pleased she had been concerned, and wanting to see her again. She had kissed him before she left the beach house. And that pleased him too.
They enjoyed each other's company as they ate, though Steve didn't finish his breakfast. Before his dad could call him on it, he went on the offensive. "Did you sleep at all last night, Dad?"
"I couldn't hardly last night. You didn't wake up until 4:30 this morning, you know," Mark said defensively.
Steve hid a smile. All he had to do was distract his dad a little bit longer. "Dad."
"I got a few hours."
"At home? In a bed?"
"Well, no. In my office, on the couch. It's really quite comfortable."
Steve grinned. "I'm sure it is. But you look as if you could use another ten hours."
"That much?" Mark said in mock hurt.
"It's less than I need. I feel like I could sleep for another 24 hours."
While his dad was momentarily diverted, Steve said, "So, when can I get out of here?"
"Not for a few days," Mark said repressively.
Jesse came in then to examine his patient.
"Dad, why don't you go get some sleep? That's all I'm going to do as soon as Jesse finishes so I won't need you to entertain me." Steve realized he had probably overstepped with that remark and hurriedly added, "Besides, I'll rest easier knowing you are too."
"As if you have a choice," Mark grumbled.
"Steve's right. You need some rest, Mark. I'll wake you if his condition changes at all, but I expect him to be sleeping too," Jesse said.
Steve smiled at the help from that quarter.
Mark pressed the backs of his fingers against Steve's cheek, testing, and Steve smiled as his dad scowled. His temperature was normal then.
"Oh alright. I'm going but just to my office, Jesse."
"Perfect. If things continue to improve here – and I'm sure they will – I'll be transferring him to a regular room today."
The exam seemed fairly routine and Steve spent most of it in a light doze, only rousing himself to grunt something at Jesse's pointed questions.
Cold scissors on his leg as Jesse cut the bandage away woke Steve briefly.
"This could look better" was all he said before instructing the nurse on what he wanted done with the leg now before moving up to check Steve's blood pressure.
"There's a mild infection in the wound area, but I suspect we caught it in time. Your temperature is normal, but I'm going to order temperature checks to make sure we stay on top of that. Your system can't easily tolerate another assault on it, and your dad doesn't need anything else to worry about."
"I can't argue with that. You ever sleep?"
Jesse chuckled. "Not lately, no."
"Hey," Jesse cut him off. "I'm going as soon as I update your chart. My wonderful bedside manner will be wasted on you anyway since you can hardly keep your eyes open. Dr. Hanlon will take over your care while I'm gone. Huh."
"Your BP's a little low."
Steve shook his head in exasperation. "All I've done for the past couple days is sleep. All I want to do now is sleep. Wouldn't that affect my blood pressure?"
"Alright, Dr. Sloan. It could have some bearing, I'll grant you that." Jesse wrote something in his chart. "I'll have that checked along with your temperature and wound."
"Oh c'mon, Jess. I'll never get any rest with nurses trapezing in and out of here checking my BP every 20 minutes. Besides, aren't you doctors always telling us to lower our blood pressure?"
"It won't be that frequent. But low blood pressure coupled with elevated temperature is a major warning sign. Uh, uh … I know you don't have a fever – yet. And the idea is to keep it that way. Remember – we don't want your dad worrying about anything."
"Okay. Fine. Will I still be able to move to a regular room today?
"At this point, I don't see why not."
Amanda and Cheryl stopped by at the same time to visit him after he'd been settled in his new room. While part of him was disappointed he couldn't see Cheryl alone, another part decided he had read too much into that kiss at the beach house. In the end, Steve was glad both women were there so that they could keep each other company when he inevitably drifted off again.
Mark felt distinctly less scruffy after showering and shaving. He contemplated checking on Steve, never mind his protests. He smiled to himself, thinking of breakfast. Steve had been hiding something, Mark was certain, but his temp had felt normal enough and while he didn't finish his breakfast, his wheedling to go home was vastly reassuring so Mark decided to let him enjoy his privacy. For now. Jesse would let him know if his health changed in any manner.
In the end, Mark couldn't resist sinking into his couch and lying down. His intern days were long behind him and these past few days had had enough emotional strain to drain even a man half his age.
Something niggled at the back of his brain but refused to properly show itself. Mark knew from long experience that if he left it alone, it'd come to him in its own time.
He sighed. He just instinctively felt it was important, whatever it was. It was maddening.
He'd felt it again this morning, finding Annie in Steve's room, something almost at the tip of recognition before it had stepped back into the shadows. Mark thought maybe it had something to do with her, something she had said or done or … something.
But while pressing her for more details about how her husband came to be bitten by a boomslang when they went down to the cafeteria had satisfied his curiosity and filled in her story, it did nothing for that niggling sensation currently making a nuisance of itself.
All he could do now was wait it out.
Lulled by the knowledge that his son was recovering, had awoken, and was under guard, Mark slept.
Mark woke all at once, sitting up before he became consciously aware that that's what he wanted to do. "How did she know it was boomslang venom?" he asked the empty room. Wouldn't the symptoms present the same from any hemotoxic snake bite? So how did Annie know it was boomslang specifically and not another type of snake? Mark didn't know, but surely there were more local varieties that would've made more sense as a first guess.
True … she had lost her husband to a boomslang's bite so maybe she just assumed it was boomslang venom since that's what she knew. But it was starting to seem awfully convenient to Mark.
He scrubbed at his face, tossing the blanket onto the seat next to him. He had left the desk lamp on when he lay down, leaving the office in muted, somber light now. A quick look at his watch told him it was just after 7 at night.
Good. Mark stretched, loosening muscles that had tightened from sleeping on the couch. Maybe Steve hadn't eaten yet and they could have supper together and Mark could reassure himself that his son really was fine.
Especially since Cheryl had told him on the phone that morning that they still weren't any closer to finding out whoever could be Steve's would-be-murderer – let alone apprehending them.
And why, Mark wondered, would Annie have told them the poison used on his son if she wanted to kill him with it? Steve had never met her until a week ago, so she couldn't possibly hate him enough to do anything to him. Besides, both Steve and Cheryl had said it was a man who had run into him.
He stood up and stretched some more. The sleep had done wonders for him. Seeing his son safe and sound would do even more.
Maybe he was just being paranoid, Mark decided. Someone had very nearly succeeded in murdering his firstborn and that someone was still on the loose and free to try again. And since he was unidentified, he could be anyone so of course Mark felt suspicious of everyone.
Although … Mark remembered Steve had once told him that most poisoners were women. But it was a man who ran into him. Unless he had been hired….
A knock sounded perfunctorily on his office door before it opened, revealing Jesse and Amanda. And it clicked into place, looking at their solemn expressions as they stepped into the room, shutting the door behind them, what had been bothering him. Santa Mira.
Annie had said she left Santa Mira.
The coincidences were adding up to something he didn't like.
"Mark?" Jesse said, as if it hadn't been the first time he'd said it.
It occurred to Mark in a rush that his young friends coming to him together with the same pinched expressions was something else he didn't like. And should be very afraid of.
"Steve?" He held onto the back of the chair where he had slung his lab coat before lying down.
"He has a fever, and his BP is low," Jesse said. He bit his lip. "No one knew … we just got a sample from his wound down to pathology."
"How could you not know?" Mark demanded, fear for his child making him angry. Court couldn't keep Steve safe; was he not safe even in the hospital, right under his father's nose? "He was supposed to be checked periodically, not left languishing alone in a room all day! It's already 7 o'clock."
Amanda and Jesse exchanged looks. "I know, Mark," Amanda said cautiously. "It was crazy in the ER and Dr. Hanlon was busy there. I know it's not an excuse," she added hastily.
"The thing is," Jesse took up, "they were really short-staffed. Nurses didn't come on for their shifts, a couple of doctors didn't show up. By the time David had a moment to check on Steve, he was already feverish. He was called off again but not before telling the nurse what to do and ordering tests on the wound. It's in the chart. She … uh, she didn't do any of it. Just recorded Steve's vitals and left it at that."
Mark closed his eyes. He had let his son's would-be-murderer have limitless access to him. "Annie Brandt."
Jesse looked surprised and offered a nervous smile. "Yeah … how did you know?"
Mark pulled himself together, noted the hurt look in both doctors' eyes. "I'm sorry I yelled at you," he said. "I'm scared for and worried about Steve but that's no reason to take it out on you."
Amanda laid a hand on Mark's arm. "There's nothing to forgive, Mark. It's been a trying few days."
"And somebody did try to kill your son," Jesse added. "I mean if you can't get angry about that, what can you get angry at?"
Mark smiled half-heartedly at them and thought about what he needed to do. "Amanda, look up the obituary for Lynn Conklin, Santa Mira, about two years ago. I think Steve said she may have gone by O'Hare then. Find out her mother's maiden name. Also see what you can find out about the death of Robert Brandt – or maybe Robert O'Hare, also of Santa Mira. I don't think it will mesh completely with what Annie told me. And find out what happened with the nurses' schedules."
"Wait. You think Annie's trying to kill Steve? Why?" Amanda said. "I mean, yeah, she's incompetent at best, with what she didn't do for Steve, but attempted murder?"
"Hey," Jesse cut in. "Lynn Conklin. Wasn't that the reporter Steve dated? The cop killer?" His face lost all traces of humor. "Oh no."
"Oh yes. Jesse, I need you to contact whichever cop is guarding Steve and tell them Annie Brandt is not allowed near him. Have them detain her for suspicion of attempted murder for now. Call Cheryl and let her or Captain Newman know. Have security look for Annie and hold her until Walter or Cheryl get here."
"What are you going to be doing?"
"I'm going to protect my son."
"Lynn Conklin?" Amanda said. "That must be quite the story." She was already walking out the door on her way to Pathology.
"I'll tell you later," Mark said distractedly as they hurried out to the elevator. He prayed Steve was strong enough to withstand this latest assault. He'd have to evaluate if he needed to move Steve back to ICU after he examined him. And then he wasn't leaving his son's side until he was hale and hearty again. He'd have a cot set up no matter where Steve wound up, even in ICU, and no one would touch a hair on his son's head unless Mark approved it first.
Just let Steve be strong enough.
Annie Brandt shut the door firmly behind her and leaned against it. She allowed herself a smile as she noticed the figure on the bed. He was asleep. Perfect.
Before she had left this morning, she'd logged into the scheduling program under Administrator and altered both nurses' and doctors' schedules for the day and night to ensure that murderer wouldn't get the care he needed, shorting nurses on his floor. Simple enough to do since the old fool in charge of scheduling hated the computer but since she had to use it, picked 1-2-3-4-5 as a password. Annie had come back early for her shift, delighted at the chaos she found, and procured what she needed from the infectious disease lab. No one was there, of course, but she signed in anyway. She wanted Dr. Sloan to know where she'd been. An emetic placed in the cop's coffee outside Lt. Sloan's room at just the right moment – they'd become friendly while she'd been in and out of the room with Dr. Hanlon not following his orders – so he wasn't suspicious of her presence. The cop had been carted off to the ER just after Drs. Travis and Bentley had set off for the old coot's office.
Annie sighed. She knew he'd be here soon, so she pushed herself away from the door and went to the bed. Quickly, before Sloan woke, she buckled the restraint tightly around his near wrist and then secured it flush to the raised rail on that side of the bed, taking away the entire range of motion from that arm. Restraints weren't meant to be used like that, but the last thing she cared about was this patient's comfort or dignity. She didn't bother with his far wrist, thinking it an unnecessary precaution with her time so limited, and knowing it wouldn't have to hold him for long. Besides, it wasn't her only means to control him.
She wheeled the tray table nearer and overturned her shoulder bag, dumping her supplies on it with a raucous clang.
Sloan stirred at that and though his eyelids twitched, they didn't open.
Very well. She'd wake him more directly.
Annie pulled back the light blanket and sheet, exposing the cop's leg. She cut the bandage off, then peeled his hospital gown down, exposing his chest and upper abdomen. She trailed the scissors down the plate of his chest, and he woke with a start.
She watched his eyes change from confused sleepiness to alarm as he took in the change in his gown and bedding; fever overlaid all of it. He jerked at his wrist, became aware of the restraint for the first time. He reached across his body with his other hand, and Annie decided that was enough.
She struck it with the hammer, catching him across the knuckles, before he snatched his hand back.
Sloan's face drained of expression as he looked at her, finally acknowledging the danger of his situation.
"What are you doing, Annie?"
She transferred the hammer to her other hand and struck him an open-handed blow across the face. She enjoyed the sting in her palm, the sting that showed she was finally doing something for Lynn, that her patience and planning had paid off. He was hot to the touch. "You have no right to talk to me."
His brows contracted quizzically. "What did I ever do to you?"
She slapped him again, but this time he caught her wrist with his free hand.
For all he was sick and not yet recovered from boomslang poisoning, his grip was strong and Annie pulled back even as he pulled her to him, trying to get her arm in his restrained hand. Annie swung wildly with the hammer, catching him in the arm, his cheekbone, his wrist until he lost his hold and she stepped back.
Both of them were breathing heavily. She hammered him again, hard, with her dominant hand this time, on his thigh. And once more because he pissed her off. A third time because she wanted to.
The adrenalin was fading, and Annie found herself shaking.
The cop had made no sound beyond a sharp intake of breath at the first blow, enduring the rest in stoic silence. It made her want to pound him until he cried out, pound him until his pride broke and he begged her to stop.
Annie drew a deep breath. "If you behave yourself," she said conversationally, "we can dispense with the hammer."
"What's the endgame here, Annie?" he asked. There was blood on his cheek. "You have to know the police are here. Someone will see what you're doing."
"Oh I have no intention of leaving here alive," Annie said airily. "Neither should you."
He blinked. "It doesn't have to be that way—"
"But it does," she snapped. "And you are stupid. I told you not to talk to me." She struck him in the kneecap this time, gratified by his muffled cry.
He reached over again, fumbling with the restraint, and she brought the hammer down hard on his wrist. He recoiled, glaring at her.
"You need a distraction," she said. Annie set the hammer aside and picked up the 35 cc syringe. She'd already loaded it with 1 cc staph in normal saline and 34 cc of air. She inserted the needle into the IV port and pushed the plunger, sending the contents down the tube into his near hand, even as he lunged at her.
He paled significantly and froze, swaying slightly, as if he had a hard time maintaining his balance in an upright position. He was probably only now realizing how sick he truly was, Annie reflected spitefully.
He had fallen back in bed before she finished injecting air into his vein. She drew another syringe full for later.
Sloan's body went rigid. He shut his eyes, breathing shallowly, his hands curled into fists. The tendons stood out in stark relief against his taut neck, and the drag of his facial muscles spoke of a pain he refused to verbalize.
While he was incapacitated, Annie sprinkled the contents of a small vial over his wounded leg. She spritzed the gash on his cheek, the catheters in his veins, and his chest and abdomen with a small spray bottle full of another type of the staph bacteria.
He made a sound in the back of his throat, muscles still fixed against agony.
Annie smiled as she heard the door open behind her and turned around.
Mark's heart nearly stopped when he rounded the corner to Steve's room and there was no one standing guard at the door. It then picked up double-time, beating painfully against his ribs. He didn't believe for one moment that the cop assigned to protect his son was on the other side of that door talking shop with Steve. Not with Annie presumably still on the loose.
Maybe the guard already picked her up and was taking her back to the station, a small voice jabbered in Mark's mind, and Steve was fine. Just fine. Sleeping, even, and there's absolutely nothing to worry about.
But Mark paid that voice no heed. Steve was supposed to be safe in court and look how that turned out. He was supposed to be safe here – safe at his father's work – and that was turning out even worse.
So when Mark spied a nurse just leaving a different room, he didn't hesitate to tell her to get security to Steve's room immediately and to call the precinct and have Captain Newman come now. It was a matter of life and death.
Mark took a deep breath, bracing himself, and opened the door.
"Hello, doc. So nice of you to finally join us," Annie said cordially. "Won't you come in?"
It wasn't really a question, and Mark never hesitated. He heard Jesse call out to him as he stepped across the threshold.
"Why don't you shut the door, hmm."
Again, it wasn't a question, and Mark let the door close behind him. He barely noticed when it thudded dully into place. He was too focused on the figure in the bed beyond Annie.
"What did you do to him?"
"Oh, nothing much. We were waiting on you before we really got started."
"Why, Annie?" He thought he'd put the pieces together, but he wanted to stall, give the cops time to get here, though what he expected them to do at night in a room with a single window with the blinds drawn with only one egress and two hostages hadn't occurred to him. He didn't have energy to worry about it, not with this woman standing between him and his son. And not with what she had laid out on a tray table next to her.
Steve made a harsh sound and Mark could no more ignore it as he could the imperative to breathe, and he stepped forward, meaning to go to his son's side and render any relief he could.
"Get back!" Annie cried.
She swung the hammer, impacting Steve's chest with a guttural sound of effort, forcefully recalling Mark to the reality of a situation in which he had no control.
She swung it again, and Mark's heart seized. Again it thumped into the flesh of his son and again and it finally penetrated his horror-filled mind she had made a demand and he stepped back, raising his hands placatingly, as she pounded the hammer ruthlessly into his son's body yet again.
He took another small step back, only too aware of what a hammer could do to the frail human body and wishing he didn't know it now. Women weren't as physically strong as men and Annie, though younger than Mark, as Lynn had been younger than Steve, was still in her 60's, so age would rob her of even more strength and Mark had to hope that that difference would mean Steve's chances sided with life over death.
Annie lowered the hammer. Her arm and shoulder had to be screaming at her, but Mark dared not take that chance, not with Steve's life in the balance.
Mark remained silent. He had never seen his son beaten before, physically hurt in front of him and the horror of witnessing it now was quickly turning to rage and a father's need to protect his child.
"He murdered my daughter. He never even served time for it! Since the justice system didn't punish him, I will."
"He hasn't murdered anyone," Mark countered. He edged to the side, but not forward, needing to get a better look at his son. "Even when he's been part of officer-involved shootings, he grieves for the life he had to take. He doesn't want to kill anyone, Annie."
"Lynn Conklin." She said the name as one would a prayer, and Mark's heart grieved for her loss. "That's how he knew her. She was Lynn O'Hare. My baby. They broke her. But she got the last laugh."
Mark took a couple more steps to the side, keeping his eyes on Annie, trying to gauge if he overstepped whatever arbitrary bounds she had put down. If he just turned his head, he'd finally have an unimpeded view of his firstborn.
"It was wrong, what happened to her." He agreed but did not agree with the vengeance both mother and daughter pursued beyond justice. "Steve told me. He would've—"
"He killed her!" she shrieked, throwing an emesis basin into the wall. It hit with a thud and clattered to the floor.
Mark intended to say something, to keep her attention on him and not his son, but in watching the trajectory of the basin, he locked eyes on Steve and every other consideration – including speech – held not one further whit of his interest.
A bruised laceration on his cheek showed Annie had already taken a hammer to him before Mark even arrived. His right wrist was cruelly restrained – did she not know Steve was left handed? Or was it simple expediency, the closest to her when she came into the room? A thin red line bisected his chest, which looked … wet? But it was his leg – inflamed, discolored, festering – that arrested his gaze. It drew the doctor in him and unthinking, he stepped toward the bed.
Annie's inarticulate scream diverted his gaze to her just in time to watch her plunge the scissors into Steve's right shoulder.
Mark rocked back as if the savagery of the blow had impaled his own shoulder. He moved toward her in a current of fury, every instinct demanding he get her away from his child when he stalled dizzily as she picked up the hammer and threatened to pound the scissors in deeper.
He floundered to a stop, casting about for anything he could use as a weapon against her, anything to distract her from her target. But there was nothing beyond his own hands and his knowledge of the human body and a father's love.
But how could he get near her without Steve suffering the consequences?
"I see he comes by his stupidity honestly," Annie commented wryly.
A hesitant knock sounded on the door before it opened. The door itself precluded Mark from seeing who had done it or why.
"Get out and shut the door, Travis." A note of ice crept into Annie's voice. She wrapped a hand in Steve's hair, angling his head; the other held a scalpel blade over his carotid artery.
Mark made a strangled sound of protest.
"Okay, okay," Jesse said hurriedly and the door closed with his retreat.
Steve's eyes were open, the crystal-clear blue clouded with pain and fever. Mark had first looked into those depths forty-some years ago, forging then the first links in a bond that intrinsically bound them together, a bond of love, shared experiences, and a lifetime of memories. It was repugnant to him that he sit back and helplessly watch this woman take all that away while he did nothing.
"He didn't murder Lynn. It was self-defense."
"Lies," she spat.
"No," Mark said implacably. "Lynn broke into our home and attacked a blind man. Only his instincts and training kept him alive that night. He nearly became her next victim." His voice cracked, remembering returning to the beach house and seeing the yellow crime scene tape and the coroner's van in the driveway after the Saperstien benefit dinner. The good mood that had accompanied him home had turned to ash in his throat and his panicked thought had been what had he been thinking, leaving Steve alone.
But Annie was listening, withdrawing the blade from Steve's throat and taking a step towards Mark.
His train of thought was momentarily blocked as he caught the faint movement of Steve's free hand. Mark shook his head almost imperceptibly, boring his meaning into his stubborn son's head with gimlet eyes. Steve sighed softly but desisted. For now. Mark could easily read that warning in his offspring's set expression. Because his hyper-protective son would protect him at all costs, disregarding such trivial concerns as personal safety or well-being.
"Blind?" Annie's tone told Mark what she thought of such an apparent lie as much as the hammer she picked up.
"Yes, Annie, blind." Mark infused his voice with the rage of his father's instincts thwarted from protecting his son, and she gave him the attention such a tone demanded. "Lynn shot him in her first attack on him. Grazed the side of his head. Between that, jumping headlong through a window, and hitting the ground head-first, he temporarily lost his sight. If it wasn't for a man out fortuitously walking his dog, she would've killed Steve then."
His heart still clenched spasmodically over how close it had been then, how terribly close he'd come to losing his son. Twice Lynn had almost taken Steve's life and now twice her mother had tried, trying to fulfill her daughter's last aggressive act.
No. Mark would not let her succeed.
"Where were you?"
It wasn't a question Mark expected, and he didn't pretend he didn't know what she meant. Her attention was wholly on him, sparing Steve, who's eyes had closed again. Mark ached to go to him, to give him the treatment he so urgently needed, to reassure himself through sound, touch, and sight that he yet lived.
"At a function related to my work here."
"So you left your blind son home alone because of your job," Annie summarized venomously.
Mark winced. Put like that….
"You men are all the same," she said. "Only your careers matter to any of you. You always take your job over your children."
And Mark knew she wasn't talking about him anymore – or at least not completely.
"Robert was like that. Insisted his career was so important. He showed me his job meant more to him than our daughter. So I showed him. I didn't dilute the boomslang venom I gave him. I made sure he didn't get to a hospital until it was far too late."
The small hairs on the back of his neck stood at the coldly callous way she admitted to murdering her husband.
"He didn't deserve Lynn. You don't deserve to be a father either."
"It wasn't like that, Annie," Mark corrected. He'd bare his soul if that's what it took to keep her away from his son. "He couldn't see – he didn't want to be in public. And he was grieving, Annie. He cared for Lynn a great deal. He had just found out what happened to her in college. He would've helped her if she'd come to him. It's in his nature to protect those who need it."
His eyes strayed to his son. Mark couldn't tell if he was conscious or not and that worried him. The shifting soles on linoleum worried him too and he returned his attention to the nurse-cum-murderer.
"We were told Lynn was dead. Her car smashed into an embankment. They hadn't done the autopsy yet, but preliminary findings revealed her driver's license and the physical description matched Lynn. Steve thought they could've had something special – he wanted them to. So, you see, he wanted to be alone to mourn her loss, to mourn what could've been, to mourn what had happened to her."
Annie's eyes swam with tears, and Mark realized that this was the first time she'd heard anything about her daughter's final hours. Maybe this information could shift the antipathy in her heart, the truth kinder than whatever she had imagined over the last couple years.
"He felt guilt and regret for what happened to her back then," Mark admitted, "even though he didn't know her and there's nothing he could've done. But it made taking her life harder. He never wanted to kill her, Annie. But Lynn left him no choice."
Annie was silent for what seemed a long time, and Mark took a cautious step forward. He hoped by sharing Steve's pain – by giving his privacy away for public consumption – it would make Annie see him as a human being and not the cold-hearted monster her imagination made him out to be.
It didn't work.
"You admit he murdered my daughter."
"It was self-defense." Mark felt they were going in circles, covering the same ground and going nowhere fast. He tried a different tact, made his voice a touch incredulous, a touch impatient. "You can't tell me if Lynn had been able to kill one of her attackers you'd have called it murder. You would've called it self-defense. A grand jury would've called it self-defense. It's the same thing."
Annie refused to be persuaded. "He took my baby. He needs to die." She hefted the hammer, testing; fingered the scalpel. "For what he did. To punish you for raising him in the first place."
"Fine," Mark agreed immediately. "Then punish me. Annie, you were right; I left him alone while he was blind, I chose work over him. So take me instead. Let him go."
He didn't really believe that, but he'd say whatever he needed to to save his son's life. And he had lived a long life, a good life, and his biggest regret would be not knowing if Steve survived this night, but it was an easy trade. Steve was still so young, a boy really, with so much living yet to do for it to be cut short, especially if he could stop it. It wasn't really a decision that needed to be made.
What Annie thought of that suggestion, Mark never found out.
For Steve suddenly surged upright from the bed, wrapping his long arm around Annie's chest. He pulled her against him, locking his free wrist in his bound right hand's grip, trapping her in his arms.
Annie had been turning toward him when he made his move and so was caught partially facing him. She flailed with the scalpel, struggling against Steve, screaming in rage.
Mark was so taken aback he froze, watching in numb amazement. Incongruously he wondered where on earth Steve found the strength to fight back but when he ran the last things he and Annie had said through his mind he found the phrase that trigged Steve's protective instincts and he cursed inventively under his breath.
Cursed his son's overprotectiveness that would willingly sacrifice his life for an old man's, cursed his own idiocy in tripping it in the first place, and cursed Annie especially for putting them in this situation.
Then his mind caught up with what his eyes were seeing: Annie's arm piston driving, the scalpel blade plunging up and down. Plunging in and out of his son in fine sprays of blood. A muttered invective. The scissors abruptly taking the scalpel's place; up and down, in and out, shattering Mark's immobility, potentially shattering his world.
"NO!" The cry tore from his throat, plumbing the depths of his greatest fear so much so it hurt, twin anguishes of mental and physical distress, nearly consuming him.
He threw himself at Annie, grabbing her and wrestling her from Steve's arms, flinging her away. She lost her balance and fell and that's all the attention Mark spared her. It had been too easy to free her.
The door banged open, feet pounding across the floor, voices yelling 'police' and 'hold it,' too many bodies crowding into the room and Mark was barely aware of any of it. His entire being was centered on his son.
Steve slumped toward his bound arm. His left upper chest, shoulder, and back were covered in blood. A couple nicks marred his neck. There were no defensive wounds, Steve leaving himself wide open for attack, only intent on holding his attacker so she couldn't hurt his father.
Mark thought he'd have to revisit that later, let himself rail and cry and scream in private at what his son had sacrificed, at what his son had willingly endured to protect him. Later though … Steve needed him too badly to indulge in his emotions now.
But that reckoning was coming.
His throat closed, and he reached out hesitantly, finally settling a hand on Steve's right shoulder.
Steve slouched further. The scissors, both blades coated in blood and gore, smacked metallically into the floor, splattered with blood. His son's blood. Even the handles were bloody. A broken scalpel lay next to them.
Mark quickly looked away. Blood had never bothered him before – one couldn't be a doctor let alone Head of Internal Medicine if it did – but this was Steve's blood, his firstborn's and now it was everywhere, the whole room bleeding out.
He tenderly eased Steve back in bed, and then Jesse was there on the other side and started issuing orders. Mark was beyond grateful. There was too much turmoil churning inside for him to assume control of anything. He needed to be a father.
"Hey, she's bleeding," someone said.
And then Mark's nightmare continued as Steve stopped breathing. Everything blurred together and slowed down, leaving Mark still-lifes, snapshots of the most horrifying experience of his life to take out and examine in insidious dreams, locking them away from the light of memory for every other moment.
The Ambu-bag thrust in his hands, breathing for his son who couldn't, while Jesse feverishly worked to keep him alive. He kept his eyes on Steve's face, even when tear blinded, dazedly working the bag and tuning out everything, even the commotion surrounding Annie, everything surreal and vivid at once and all Mark wanted was for Steve to open his eyes, to take one breath on his own.
"We need to get him to OR stat, people," Jesse said tightly, recalling Mark at last to the world beyond his son's face and the rise and fall of his chest.
"We need some help over here!" a cop cried.
Someone took over the Ambu-bag from Mark, wheeling Steve out the door at a dead run. Amanda looked torn – stay with him or help Annie.
She didn't expect to live, Mark saw that now. She didn't expect Steve to live.
Mark made Amanda's decision for her. He scooped up the vials, syringes, and bottles on the tray table and deposited them in Amanda's arms. "Find out what these are. She used them on Steve."
Amanda ran out the door.
Mark hailed Dr. Miller in the corridor and sent him back into the room with the cops, a nurse tailing him, letting them handle whatever was wrong with Annie.
He was too numb, too overwrought to care about Hippocratic Oaths. Being a father was the most important job, the most important thing he had ever done in his life – with his life – and his son needed him. His son needed his father. And nothing else mattered.
Annie was dead, an acute massive hemorrhagic event. Autopsy revealed excessive amounts of both Coumadin and aspirin in her system. She guaranteed she'd never leave that room alive. It was unclear if it was her fall, grappling with Steve, or the cuts she sustained on her hands in her frenzied assault with the scissors that lead to her bleeding out; all had played a factor. Mark couldn't bring himself to care that much, only lamenting all the lives thrown into disarray and ruin by the actions of four cops years and years ago.
Steve was on a veritable cocktail of antibiotics. Testing had proved him to be infected with two different MRSA's and a VRSA and only because they had been looking for something were they able to start treatment in time. A sign in sheet in the infectious disease lab proved what they already knew.
Mark rubbed tiredly at his temples. It had been a long two days, waiting and praying, hoping his son's constitution was as strong as it ever was, unsure if he'd live or die.
Steve was back in ICU, back on a ventilator, back on IV fluid therapy and blood transfusions as if he'd never left. Mark swore he could hear the drips of the IV lines. He was surrounded by a magnificent mechanical serenade that demonstrated Annie didn't get what she wanted, the beep-whoosh-drip proving incontrovertibly that Steve still lived. Despite her best efforts.
Despite Steve's best efforts, Mark thought sometimes in his darker moments. Something he wanted to talk about with him when he woke up.
Cheryl was another. She had spent a considerable amount of time waiting with Mark waiting on Steve to open his eyes. She had sat with Mark that first night while Jesse operated on him and Amanda hunted down what Annie had given him. There had been pain and grief and loss in her expression. Even through his own chaotic emotions, Mark had seen it.
He wondered if Steve even knew what Cheryl felt about him. For all his success and ease in dating women, Steve could sometimes be amazingly oblivious of a woman's feelings for him.
Mark had invited Cheryl to the beach house when Steve came home, a celebratory gathering of their closest friends. He told himself he wasn't technically getting involved in his son's love life seeing as how Steve already knew Cheryl.
He was just giving them both a gentle nudge.
The figure on the bed twitched, eyelids starting to quiver. Mark tightened his grip on the hand he held, leaning forward, tenderly brushing away the hair that had fallen over Steve's forehead.
As if on cue, Jesse bustled into the room. "Ah … looks like our boy is waking up again," he said cheerfully.
He checked the machines and vitals and made notations in Steve's chart. He checked oxygen levels and must've liked what he saw for the comforting symphony of beep-whoosh-drip became beep-drip as the ventilator was dialed back and eventually turned off.
Mark eased Steve up a little when he coughed as Jesse pulled the intubation tube out.
The younger doctor watched his friend's progress and fairly beamed at Mark when Steve's eyes blinked open before quietly exiting, giving father and son some much needed time together.
Steve blinked again before his eyes focused on his father, and he offered him his sweetest smile, the one that still took Mark's breath away, even after all these years.
"Hello, Steve," he said hoarsely, repeating the first words he had ever said to his son 40-some-odd years ago when the nurse had placed the impossibly tiny bundle in his arms for the very first time. The same love and awe and delight and pride that had been in his voice then was still there today.
For Steve would always be his little boy, no matter how old he got, would always be the joy of Mark's life.
"Dad. Are you alright?"
His voice was raspy – and the most beautiful sound Mark had ever heard – and Mark held a straw to his lips and waited while Steve sucked some water down his parched throat.
He set the cup aside and then carefully gathered his son into his arms, some part of him remembering the very first time he had ever done that, and he held on tighter, remembering how he vowed then to keep that tiny miracle safe. It was harder to do now, now that he was a man and a cop besides, Superman off saving the world. But he was still Mark's little boy.
He felt his son's strong arms around him and whispered in his ear: "I am now, son. Everything is just perfect."