DISCLAIMER: "Diagnosis Murder" and all its wonderful characters belong to Viacom and CBS. "Father's Love" belongs to Randy Thomas and Robert Mason Carlisle (Bob Carlisle). This is fan fiction only; I make no money here.
A/N: This takes place at the end of 1998. For the purposes of this story, I've condensed the DM timeline so that Amanda has already adopted Deon. If you like it-or even if you didn't-please leave a review; they are much appreciated!
"A Father's Love"
Three feet tall and full of questions
You must have thought
I was the smartest man alive
I didn't always have the answers
To every little how and where and why
"There," Mark said, knotting Amanda's scarf around Jesse's ankle with a flourish.
"Thanks, Mark," Jesse said with a small smile, making as if to rise from the rock on which he sat.
Mark stopped him. "Jesse. You have either a Grade III sprain or a fracture. We won't know which until we can get x-rays at Community General. Either way, no weight bearing. You know that," he added gravely as Jesse's face fell.
The amount of tenderness and bruising forestalled a more thorough examination, though the instability alone ruled out walking.
Jesse waved his arms expansively, nearly hitting CJ who was playing with Jesse's suddenly extra boot. The swelling was already too severe by the time Mark got it off to try putting it back on again. Besides, the bulky scarf made a fit impossible. "How am I supposed to get down from here then?"
Here being the top of an overlook they had hiked to for the boys to burn off more energy before cake and ice cream was served at 1 p.m. Steve had effortlessly jumped down from a craggy outcrop so Jesse, not to be outdone, followed suit. Only he landed awkwardly, necessitating what turned into a misstep, which was accompanied by a "pop," nearly putting the young doctor in tears. Unfortunately, Mark's medical bag was in Steve's truck back in the parking lot and Amanda had nothing in her bag stronger than Children's Tylenol for pain.
"Well, Steve can carry you," Mark generously volunteered his son with a smile.
Untreated severe ankle sprains could lead to a lifetime of ligament and foot problems and for an ER doctor that could cost him his career. So walking was obviously out of the question.
"Carry me?" Jesse spluttered indignantly. "I'm not a 3-year-old to be toted about. No, thank you. I'll take my chances walking."
"A fireman's carry is hardly toting you around like a child." Steve entered the fray.
Jesse looked horrified. "Nah-uh." His voice squeaked in emphatic denial. "No way. I'd like to keep some dignity intact."
In the end, Mark somehow wound up carrying the extra boot and Jesse appropriated his much taller friend as a crutch: Steve walked on the side of the hurt foot with Jesse's hand clutching his shoulder and Steve's hand at Jesse's waist, to offer support and keep him on his foot when he slipped or faltered. Jesse hopped determinedly next to Steve, hand sunk into his shoulder, keeping his bad foot up off the ground. Steve was forced into an unnatural posture, leaning at an angle to make it easier on the young doctor, but not so far as to compromise his own balance.
Mark wondered which of them would be sorer in the morning. He hoped Jesse didn't wind up with a dislocated or strained shoulder on top of his ankle problems, having to keep his arm raised above his head to maintain his grip on Steve's shoulder.
A fine drizzle began to fall, and Mark pulled the hood of his coat up and tied it tight. It was warmer, if only by a degree or two, up here than it had been at the beach house that morning, though Mark had dressed for the cooler Malibu weather. Now he was glad he had.
"Oh great. Rain," Jesse muttered. "Just what I always wanted when I only had one foot."
"What are you complaining about?" Steve said. "You're wearing a parka."
"Well, my foot's not. And I was cold this morning."
"I'm beginning to see why you left Elgin, Illinois for sunny California."
Jesse cast a jaundiced eye at the darkening gray sky. "If only."
Mark and Amanda exchanged parentally tolerant smiles at the two's bickering.
And the morning had started so well. Deon had received an invitation to a birthday party from a classmate for the week before Christmas and Amanda had deduced by his behavior that he'd never actually gone to a birthday party before. She wanted to make the occasion special for him so had invited Jesse and the Sloans, with whom he'd seemed to have formed a strong attachment since the adoption had gone through. Because of the time of year, the invitation had been for the entire family and took place up in the Santa Monica Mountains at a newer family owned and operated establishment called Mid Country Family Fun Center, which boasted a wide range of activities, including laser tag and paintball, as well as catering as the owners lived on site, and other value-added enterprises.
Several hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty wound through the property and the owner had told Mark that morning that he was not only closing on additional land in the new year but was also in the process of getting permits to use the adjacent public and park lands for horseback riding, so he could add a stable the following year. Judging by the size of the property and how well-maintained all the various buildings and grounds were, Mark figured the Center was quite successful.
After the boys spent the morning playing laser tag, the group had gone for a hike to see more of the beautiful countryside before lunch, cake and ice cream were served followed by the opening of presents. Amanda had confided in Mark that Deon was anxious for his friend to open the gift Deon had picked out, but so far the boy was quietly contained.
Especially when compared to the older boys, Mark reflected wryly.
"Go on ahead," Steve said, eyeing the narrowing trail ahead of them.
Mark briefly thought of suggesting a break but decided against it—the incline would make it harder for both Steve and Jesse so better wait until they were all the way down before taking a breather.
Mark, Amanda, and the boys descended the narrow trail, which emptied into a wider one running along a creek bed, where water stood in haphazard puddles, reminding Mark of a bathtub after the water had been drained. As the rainy season advanced, he figured it'd fill up again. A couple rocky outcrops shouldered their way through the trees lining the banks.
"Mo-om," CJ said. "I'm hungry. And Deon wants to get back. Can we go now?"
"No, sweetie. We're waiting for Uncle Jesse and Uncle Steve. Don't worry," she added, gently chucking his chin, "we'll get back in plenty of time to open presents."
"Ah, here they are now," Mark said as Steve and Jesse came into view around a bend in the trail.
Disaster soon followed. It was as if Mark was watching it unfold in slow motion; he could see what was going to happen before it happened. Jesse's foot rolled over pebbles on the trail, shooting out from under him. He flailed wildly with one arm, the other tightening across Steve's flannel-covered shoulder. Steve, already taking most of Jesse's weight, took it all, sliding down the slope an inch or two before regaining his balance. He hauled Jesse up and set him on his foot, calmly averting the calamity.
"Yeah, good call there, Jesse," he said sarcastically. "This is so much more dignified than a fireman's carry."
Jesse, looking as surprised as Mark felt that he hadn't ended up on his backside, nevertheless griped, "Better than being lugged about like a sack of potatoes."
"Oh you don't have to worry about that anymore," Steve retorted, setting out again. "That was a one-time offer. It's expired now."
"You mean you won't carry me?"
"Aw, c'mon, Steve," Jesse whined, a wounded expression on his face. "I thought we were best friends. How can you let your business partner suffer like this?"
"You're the one who turned down the free ride."
Mark smiled at the pair of them and opened his mouth to say something when he caught sight of a cannonball named CJ hurtling straight at his son.
"I wanna ride, Uncle Steve!" CJ shouted gleefully, hitting Steve hard enough in the legs to make him stumble, before expertly scaling his son, unmindful of how he wavered beneath him, tugging and pulling on him as he climbed.
"CJ!" Amanda shouted, as horrified as Mark.
He thought for sure this was it, that the suddenness coupled with catching Steve in mid-step would trip up his son and then all three of them would go down in a tangle of limbs. Steve faltered only a moment before his natural athleticism and grace kicked in, the same balance that allowed him to ride the waves keeping him on his feet now.
Mark winced with him at a particularly loud kick in his upper back and then CJ had scampered to the top, sitting triumphantly on Steve's broad shoulders.
Steve reached one hand up to CJ's leg, steadying him on his high perch, the other one keeping Jesse balanced on his foot.
"CJ, what do you think you're doing?"
Amanda sounded equal parts aghast, frightened, and furious so Mark tried to calm her down.
"Steve used to do the same thing when he was CJ's age," he offered. "That kid climbed everything. Even me. More than once!" He smiled at her, then at his son. "You know, I kind of think CJ turning the tables on him serves him right."
That surprised a laugh from Amanda, and Mark chuckled with her. His son was fine, so he could afford to laugh.
"Alright, Deon, do you care to join in?" Steve asked, unperturbed by all the near fiascos.
Deon stayed tight next to Amanda, silently shaking his head. By the look on the boy's face, Mark guessed nothing in Deon's short life had prepared him for Steve's reaction. Or maybe it was the lack of reaction that threw the boy. He glanced up at Amanda, who smiled fondly down at him, squeezing him briefly against her.
"A car just fell," CJ announced from atop Steve's shoulders. "Over there." He pointed off into the distance.
Mark and Steve exchanged a bemused look. Then Steve helped Jesse down to sit against a boulder while Amanda plucked her son from his shoulders. Freed, Steve scrambled up the boulder, looking out where CJ still pointed.
"I see something." His voice was tight, expression serious as he neatly dismounted. "They probably need help."
It was the policeman in his son that drew him into situations to protect and serve, to help those in need. It was the doctor in Mark that would render aid to the same. In this way, the son was like the father, despite their different professions.
"Stay here," Mark told the others, thinking of Jesse and the boys. "We'll see what we can do and go from there."
Though how much he could do without a medical bag remained to be seen. Nevertheless, Mark set off with his son across the creek bed and down the path under the trees on the other side.
Like "Daddy, why's the sky so blue today?"
"Does Jesus really hear me when I pray?"
"When I grow up, will I be just like you?"
"Will I be tall and strong and brave?"
The drizzle continued, though it wasn't a hinderance. What looked easy as the crow flew proved several miles across sometimes difficult terrain and Steve stayed solicitously aware of his father's needs, slowing them down or stopping altogether so Mark could rest at the slightest hint of strain in the older man. The occasional woodland, widespread and sparse, grew up from the chaparral and native grasses, though the countryside was gentler here, the slopes unfolding gradually down to a defile. In front of them, the land tented acutely and about midway up, a road cut through the side of the hill. From there had come the red minivan now pointing down the escarpment. It looked as if it had rolled at least once on its way down.
The front passenger door stood opened, and a man jerked up from the driver's door. He had a cut on his forehead and appeared slightly dazed.
"Where'd you come from?" he demanded.
"I'm a doctor," Mark said. "My son and I can help."
Mark moved around the man. "Steve, give me a hand."
Steve clapped the man on the shoulder and edged passed him. A huge dent cratered the driver's side door, centering around the handle. It looked like impact damage that had nothing to do with rolling.
After a little manipulation, Steve was able to open the door for his dad and stepped aside so Mark could examine the female driver. Basic triage dictated help the most severely wounded first and since the passenger was mobile and aware, he offered aid to who needed it more. He exchanged a quick, meaningful look with his son and Steve rightly interpreted that as occupying the man's attention while Mark sought life in his companion.
The man had followed Steve, who interposed himself without thinking between him and his father at the open door. "What happened up there?"
The man seemed jittery, on edge, though Steve supposed an MVA could certainly account for that.
"Deer came out of nowhere. She swerved to avoid it, lost control." His eyes slid to the side windows of the van, to Steve, and away again.
Steve's instincts pinged through him. He wasn't sure why yet. Most people instinctively swerved to avoid deer when in fact you should keep your lane and brake, not evade the collision lest you lose control of your vehicle. Case in point. He wondered how fast they had been going.
"What happened to the door?"
The man's features showed surprise and his manner remained amicable, yet Steve's unease grew. "A second deer plowed right into it. I guess it's true what they say about deer travelling alone." His eyes slid away again.
"Uh-huh." Steve followed the man's gaze back to the tinted side window. "You have something in there?"
He leaned in behind his dad, turning to the back compartment of the van. No children. But two men were strapped in the back-passenger seats. One of them fumbled with his seatbelt and the other began to stir. Steve saw a couple water bottles and was about to back out so he could retrieve them for the passengers when his eye caught orange. He paused, making sense of what he was seeing.
Orange jumpsuits. Bolt cutters. A jumble of manacles. An instinctual flash of insight.
The female driver breaking the men from a prison transport vehicle, the van as a getaway car. Apparently, a plan executed flawlessly until deer had intervened and changed everything. Changed everything for Steve and his father as well.
Before Steve could think of a plausible excuse to get his dad out of there, he felt the unmistakable muzzle of a gun press into his back.
"Nice and slow there, friend," the man growled in his ear. "A doctor will come in handy. You, not so much. Except maybe to keep the old man in line."
Steve stiffened, his muscles tightening and coiling in preparation as adrenaline shot through his system.
"There's nothing I can do. She's dead," Mark said regretfully.
And Steve realized his dad had no idea of the trouble they had walked into.
Mark shifted as though to back out, stopping when he found Steve blocking him in. "Steve?"
Steve took a deep, centering breath, well aware that he was all that stood between his father and a gun. And time was against them as the men in the back started getting their wits about them.
The man—Steve started irreverently thinking of him as Tweedle-Dee, which made his companions Tweedle-Dum and Dumber—said, "Let me see your hands, sport."
Steve gritted his teeth, fighting a sudden insane urge to use his own appellation of the gunman in retaliation. Mercifully it ended as soon as his dad shifted to look behind him. "Don't move," he said quietly. "Stay there."
Mark frowned, eyes squinting, unable to see what was happening beyond Steve and getting agitated. Steve gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, staring his meaning hard into a pair of blue eyes so like his own. Mark subsided, visibly disturbed and trying to hide it.
Steve slowly lifted his hands. He tried to let his dad know he wouldn't let him get shot by giving him a brief smile. Peripherally, he saw Tweedle-Dee's wrist near his upraised right hand.
Muscles uncoiled as Steve thrust his arm back towards Tweedle-Dee's wrist, grabbing it hard. Instinct trumped training as stepping forward, while getting him out of the line of fire left his dad exposed, so he pivoted toward the gunman, seizing him behind the elbow and shoving his arm sideways. The gun went off, pointing harmlessly toward the hillside.
"Dad, run!" Steve shouted.
He heard the van's cargo door slide open on the far side, shouts from Tweedle-Dum and Dumber.
Steve kicked Tweedle-Dee in the knee, shoving him into the side of the van. But he didn't let go of the gun, and Steve couldn't get a grip on it. His hand stayed locked around the other's wrist.
A quick look showed him Mark hadn't run, but stood at the front bumper, frantically dividing his attention between his son and the opposite side of the van. Steve swore soundlessly. He knew his dad would never leave him, not in these circumstances, and certainly not for something as trivial as his own life.
If he had been alone, if Amanda and the boys and Jesse hadn't been near, Steve would've taken his chances on disarming Tweedle-Dee and facing whatever Tweedle-Dum and Dumber brought with his confiscated gun. But Mark was here, and Steve needed to protect him at any cost—even that of his own life.
And since protecting him was predicated on getting him out of a danger he refused to leave without his son, Steve did the only thing he could and hoped it bought them enough time: he yanked Tweedle-Dee toward him, side-stepping out of the way. He shoved him head-first into the steering wheel and relinquished his hold on his wrist. Steve slammed the door against him but didn't wait around to see the results of his handiwork.
Mark turned around, running through the defile as fast as he dared. Steve came right behind him, firmly planting himself between Mark and the gunman.
"Zig zag, Dad," he said harshly. "Keep your head down."
They only needed a little distance to get out of range of a handgun. Which meant nothing if the trio had long guns or hunted them down. If they did that….
A shot rang out, and Steve pressed his fingers into Mark's shoulder, guiding him in flight. His dad was in remarkable shape for a man his age, but Steve knew the run after the hike to get out here was taking a toll on him. He dropped back a little. He didn't want to get shot but he'd rather be the target than his dad.
Another shot blasted the air, followed by two more in quick succession. Steve flinched at the searing tear in his shoulder and the fiery brand across his ribs. Oh God, what if the bullets had found their way into his dad after grazing him?
Mark didn't falter but Steve couldn't check for blood at speed.
Another shot and then Mark and Steve rounded the foot of one of the hillocks, but Steve only let his dad slow a little while he himself dropped back further, checking for pursuit. He didn't see any and quickly caught up to his dad, telling him what he'd seen in the minivan and his conclusions.
Mark grimaced but neither wanted to stop yet, so they kept going, though Steve allowed their pace to slacken some more, keeping as much of an eye on his dad as he did behind them. He didn't let up on his vigilance until they finally stumbled to a halt up beside the boulder he had climbed earlier, finding Amanda, the boys, and Jesse huddled at its far side. They looked disconcerted.
"Were those gunshots?" Amanda demanded. She clung to her sons.
"Yeah," Mark confirmed, bent slightly over.
Steve grabbed him by the arms, raking him over frantically with his eyes, checking for wounds. "Are you hurt? Were you shot?"
Mark shook his head. "Just winded."
"What happened out there?" Jesse said.
Steve found no deceit in his father's face, no tell-tale signs of injury and marginally relaxed. Until Mark's expression went from mildly bewildered to horrified understanding as the implications of Steve's questioning dawned.
"You were behind me," Mark accused. "Are you hurt?"
"You're bleeding, Uncle Steve," CJ said helpfully.
Both boys were pointing at different parts of his body. Steve smiled reassuringly at them, turned it hopefully on Mark. "I'm fine. They're just scratches, Dad. Nothing to worry about."
Mark's face flashed through fear, frustration, and anger. "Thank you for that, but I'm sure you'll understand if I'd prefer a professional assessment of your injuries?" he said with some asperity.
Steve drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He knew his dad needed to do this, needed to feel useful; a residue of the fear and adrenaline, a need to protect his child. Steve would give it to him, though he'd prefer to wait until they were safely out of the mountains. But he didn't know how long that'd take. He hoped it'd make it easier for later when he did what had to be done.
Before Mark could move aside his flannel over-shirt, a gunshot rang out followed by a woman's sharp scream and just like that later became now. Neither sound had been distant enough for Steve's liking.
He hesitated only briefly. Mark was safe here, as were his friends; at least for now. Steve could intercept the escaped prisoners if they came, ensuring their continued safety. Given that, he couldn't ignore that woman's scream.
"Stay down, stay quiet, and stay here."
He met his father's eyes briefly, conveyed to him all the love and trust and gratitude that this man was his father. "I'll be back as quickly as I can."
Then he turned and headed back down the creek bed under a lowering sky.
There is no power on Earth
Like your father's love
So big and so strong as your father's love
A promise that's sacred,
A promise from heaven above
Mark watched his son hurry down the creek bed before disappearing behind the cover of trees and foliage, his heart in his throat, trying to tamp down his fear. Not for himself, not while Steve was around, but for his exasperatingly overprotective son.
This wasn't the first time they'd been here, Steve off-duty and setting off after gunmen—the memorable occasion at Bob's came immediately to mind—but then at least they had been in the city and backup was only a phone call away, five minutes out; and Steve had been armed, giving him at least a fighting chance. Now, though, Mark's phone had no service and no one was coming to save them, leaving his son out there all alone without a firearm.
He was only doing what came naturally to him but sometimes … sometimes, Mark wished his boy was a little less courageous, a little less dedicated, a little less decent. But that seemed disloyal to Steve and somehow a slight to the fine man he had become. So, Mark tamped down those thoughts too.
Besides, they came from the same place—fear. And they masked the most disturbing thoughts of all, the ones that squarely laid the blame on Mark's shoulders. Before he could follow that conviction to its source, Jesse spoke.
"I don't have any bars on my cellphone."
"Mark, what happened out there?" Amanda asked.
With some effort, Mark turned his thoughts away from fear and that sliver of guilt working its way through his heart, turned his gaze from the last place he had seen that boy of his and tried out a smile for his friends. It must've fallen flat, judging by the looks they gave him and exchanged with each other.
"Jesse, I want to check that ankle," he said briskly. "We'll need to be ready to move out when Steve gets back." When. Because it would be 'when' not 'if.' Steve had faced overwhelming odds before and triumphed over them. He would again.
But these men were escaped convicts. They had guns, and Steve couldn't outrun a bullet. He's unarmed and hurt, a traitorous little voice spoke up in the back of Mark's mind. He's not coming back.
Go to hell, Mark told that corner of his brain with all the fervor he could muster. It was enough. Because that voice came from his deep and abiding love for his son, from his deep faith in his firstborn, from his certainty that Steve would do everything in his power to keep his dad safe which meant he had to come back, to protect Mark if for no other reason.
Amanda produced two boxes of animal crackers and two boxes of juice from her bag, leaving her sons contentedly munching away while she joined Mark checking Jesse's ankle a short distance away. For a brief moment, Mark was consumed by a fiery longing to be able to soothe his own son so easily, to go back in time to where he could still protect his boy from the monsters of the world.
He told them what had happened while examining Jesse's foot, adding Steve's observations as he reapplied Amanda's scarf to Jesse's ankle.
Amanda frowned pensively at a water bottle she held.
"Do you have any more of those?" Mark gestured at the bottle. "I want to try to clean up Steve's wounds when he gets back."
There was that word again, that promise. But his son's tall figure stayed stubbornly absent.
"I have two more," Amanda said, passing an unopened bottle to Mark.
Mothers, like Boy Scouts, were always prepared, Mark reflected wryly. He remembered Katherine had been like that too. Always prepared for whatever her young children might need. Mark wished he was prepared now for whatever Steve might need, but he didn't even know how badly his offspring was hurt. He was still on his feet but with Steve that simply meant he wasn't dead yet. His gaze returned unerringly to the trees further down the bed, willing his son to appear, watching for that familiar, athletic frame to emerge from the drizzle.
But there was nothing.
"It'll be okay, Mark," Jesse said, following Mark's eyes to the emptiness of the creek bed. "Steve's tough. And a crack shot. He'll be back before you know it," he added bracingly.
Mark shook his head, dismayed at Jesse's assumption. It took him a moment or two to find his voice. "He's not armed, Jesse."
"What? Well why not?"
"He's off, he's not in the city, he knew he'd be around kids all day. He didn't bring his gun."
Jesse stared at him in consternation. He was silent a minute before erupting: "Then what does he think he's going to do out there?"
"Jesse," Amanda hissed.
But Jesse was apparently too distraught to keep silent. "Well, most people run the other way when they hear gunshots, not go towards it. Especially unarmed." He shook his head and muttered morosely, "He takes that 'protect and serve' thing a little too seriously sometimes."
Mark grimaced but said nothing. He wouldn't change his son for anything, wouldn't alter the man he had grown into. Even if … even when … it scared him.
Steve had always been protective, as far back as Mark could remember, especially of his family and those he loved. It was a natural progression for him to become so protective of Mark, given their close bond, but when had he gotten so hyper-protective?
It should've been Mark shielding Steve's body with his own, instead of the other way around. Yes, Steve was a cop. But Mark was a father; moreover, he was Steve's father. He should've at least tried to protect his son from the bullets that had evidently ripped through his body. Mark had known Steve was shielding him, had heard the shots, but he never knew Steve had been hit until his offspring's anxiety in ascertaining Mark had suffered no harm became plain, until CJ and Deon had pointed out the blood.
Logically, Mark knew he was being unrealistic—Steve's instincts would've had him doing everything to ensure his father's safety, instincts reinforced by Police Academy training. It was who he was. It was what he did, what he'd always done.
But the father in him couldn't help but think he'd somehow failed his offspring.
His overzealous, aggravatingly protective offspring.
And that's when it hit Mark, all at once, his mind quickly making connections and spitting out an answer to a question asked mainly as an idle exercise.
Steve's protectiveness had kicked into overdrive the longer Mark himself consulted for the LAPD. In his most honest moments, Mark could admit to himself he tended to get so consumed in a case, teasing sense out of it, puzzling through it with a single-minded determination that left him little attention for such mundane considerations as his wellbeing and life as he followed the clues wherever they lead.
It wasn't as if he went looking to put his life in danger—that was Steve's job—but rather he knew that most of the time, Steve was right there, ready to step in to keep his dad out of trouble. And maybe Mark made it a little difficult on him sometimes, and maybe he could listen a little better … maybe he even relied heavily on his firstborn's amiable and even-tempered nature to forgive him wherever his sleuthing took him.
But what if his personal carelessness while he pursued a mystery put his son in the position of compensating by putting all his own efforts into keeping Mark safe and so ignoring his own safety?
Even as Mark thought it, he knew it was right. Steve was so concerned with Mark's safety that he relegated his own as unimportant, doing whatever he needed to for Mark, even being a living shield, anything to guard his dad.
Was him consulting for the LAPD endangering his son's life? Steve protected him and kept him safe because Mark just didn't fully think of the risks he took. Leaving Steve no time or energy to look after himself.
Seeing this from Steve's perspective for the first time, he easily saw the strain and hardship he unintentionally caused his son.
Right then and there, Mark swore to himself and to his absent son that he would be more careful in the future, that he wouldn't allow himself to be so consumed as to make his offspring obligated to keep him safe, obligated to give his life for his dad. No puzzle was worth that. Not a mystery in the world could justify that risk.
Mark blinked sudden moisture from his eyes that had nothing to do with the steady drizzle.
He had survived his wife's death, but in many ways, he thought losing his son would be far more devastating. No parent should ever have to bury a child. Especially if it was the parent's fault.
Mark's heart seemed to catapult into his throat and for a long moment, he couldn't breathe. He kept his eyes trained on that accusingly empty creek bed, though he could no longer see it with the tears streaming down his face to mix with the rain, trying to regulate its erratic thumping. It would destroy him if he played any part in Steve's death; no matter how small or insignificant a role, if his butting in made Steve so focused on him he didn't see the danger to himself and died—or worse, saw it and embraced it so his dad might live.
Mark promised himself as soon as they were all safe, he'd find out if his firstborn wanted him to quit consulting, quit inviting himself into Steve's cases. Because if he did, Mark would, without nary a regret or word of protest.
Because it wasn't worth losing his son. It wasn't worth watching his son die for him … because of him. Nothing was.
He continued to watch for that beloved figure, swearing he'd do anything and everything differently, for his son, if Steve would just come back to him.
No matter where you go…
Always know you can depend on
Your father's love
"He shot somebody, he shot somebody, oh my God, he shot somebody."
The woman seemed headed for full-blown panic and Steve didn't have the time to deal with it. The teenaged girl with her hugged the young boy to her, both nestled against the woman's side. All three of them sat pressed against a boulder, an offset of the bony ridge running just behind it, which descended at an angle before petering out in a dry creek bed Steve thought was the continuation of the one where he'd left his father and friends. Down in this one he could make out a man walking along, searching the trees and scrubland lining the banks. Which told Steve he—the figure was too far away and the day too dreary for him to make out which of the convicts he was—was looking for someone.
Which meant Steve needed to find a way to rescue whoever was down there before their misfortune got any worse. Which meant he didn't have time for panicking survivors.
Fleetingly he allowed himself the luxury of wishing he had brought his dad with him to soothe the woman's nerves; he was much better at that sort of thing than Steve himself.
Reality quickly and mercifully reasserted itself. He wanted his dad as far from armed fugitives as possible and if that left him dealing with hysterical witnesses, so be it. It wouldn't be the first time. But it would be under more demanding circumstances than usual, and Steve couldn't take the time to be gentle. Not with other lives at stake.
"Hey," he said sharply, shaking her knee hard; he could see by the way she held one arm with the other that something was wrong with it. "Get a grip. You have kids to think about."
He cringed inwardly at his harshness, glad his dad and captain Newman weren't here to watch him now. Oh hell; hell's probably exactly what Cheryl would give him.
But it seemed to work. The woman finally blinked, and her wide, staring eyes started to focus on something. She turned her head to the kids beside her.
The girl smiled gratefully at Steve.
He applied a little pressure to the woman's knee, and her eyes snapped back to him. Good. "How many gunmen did you see?" He needed to figure out if all three of them were down there.
She stared at him blankly for a moment or two before haltingly saying, "One. There was one."
The girl shifted against her, straightening, which seemed to focus the woman some more.
Okay … if he just had one shooter to deal with right now….
"Is there more than one?" The woman's voice threatened an impending meltdown.
"Who was shot, do you know? Was it someone from your party?" Steve ignored her question in favor of his own. He gave her knee another shake, making his grip hard, and she kicked out a little.
Also good. In this situation, he'd rather have an angry civilian over a hysterical one.
"No." The woman breathed deeply, winced when she shifted her arm. "No, he wasn't with us."
"Did you see if he had anybody with him?"
The woman shook her head, but the teenager nodded, tugging at a couple of her braids.
"My best friend Bernice was with him," the girl said quietly, tears shimmering in her eyes as she resolutely met Steve's. "And her little brother Andy, though he's not as young as Jarrod." She briefly hugged the boy, who looked to be Deon's age. Steve had seen him playing laser tag with Deon and CJ this morning. "They're with their older sister Shannon. She's … she was Troy's girlfriend." Her voice wavered, as did her eyes, with that admission.
Steve smiled encouragingly at her, surmising Troy was the man who was shot.
"Bernice?" the woman murmured. "She was there?"
"Did you see where your friends went after Troy was shot?" Steve asked gently.
She pointed vaguely down and to the right. Okay, this was good. Steve knew he had to go left and draw the fugitive away from the area before coming back to search for the kids. But at least he had names to draw them out.
"That's very good," Steve said kindly, "and will help me out. Thank you," he added sincerely.
"What are you going to do?" the woman demanded, voice rising, grabbing at her kids.
"Mom," the girl muttered in apparent mortification and Steve had to bite back a laugh, remembering a teenaged Carol using much the same tone after Dad had embarrassed her in front of her girlfriends.
"I'm Steve, by the way, a friend of the Bentleys."
The boy brightened, looking animated for the first time since Steve had stumbled upon them.
"Deon's my friend," he confided. "I like playing with him and CJ. And their mom's nice."
"Yeah, I think so too."
Steve looked to the girl, who seemed more collected than the mother; he could only wish all his witnesses were as level-headed as she was.
"I'm Tameka." She took up Steve's invitation with a tremulous smile. "Jarrod. And our mom Belinda."
Belinda opened her mouth, and Steve squeezed her knee gently to silence her. "You three are going to stay right here and not make a sound. I'm going down there to get your friends. And then I'm going to get you all out of here. Okay? So, can you be real quiet for me?"
All three of them nodded, obediently without a sound, and Steve smiled at them.
He peeked around the boulder to make sure the gunman wasn't looking this way; he wasn't, his back turned as he continued poking the vegetation with the barrel of his rifle.
Steve swiftly climbed the bony ridge, like a tabletop or paved road here, balancing momentarily on the top. He ignored the vertiginous feeling in his head and stomach and scrambled down the other side, pausing only briefly to take a couple deep, settling breaths. C'mon, Sloan, he chastised himself, you don't have time for this. Those kids don't have time for your height issues. Very true. And God only knew when his dad would decide to come looking for him, with all his usual attention to self-preservation. It was that thought which spurred Steve on.
He descended as quickly as he could, keeping the bony ridge on his right, though it was much steeper and higher from this side. He came to a break in the wall, which went all the way through to the other side, near the end of the descent. The rocky wall continued downward after the breach for several more yards, an isolated stone prominence.
Steve only hesitated momentarily before slipping through the crevice. It was much darker in the cleft and gave the impression he was the only person in the mountains, that he was stranded and alone. He knew he wasn't, though, and poked his head cautiously out the other side, the creek bed stretching before him. He could now see the gunman was Dumber. Beyond him lay a body face-down in a growing puddle of water.
Dumber wasn't looking this way, so Steve crept around the island of stone, the ground nearly flat surrounding it. He edged behind it and saw other massive outcrops making up the terrain.
Steve picked up two softball-sized rocks and struck them sharply together. The sound was startling and unnerving. He struck them again and then threw first one, and after a couple of beats, the other out toward the closest outcrop. He sidled back behind his boulder and hurled a smaller rock, clattering against bald stone.
Dumber surged into sight as Steve ducked back into the cleft. Vegetation still shuddered from where the rocks had landed as if someone had recently passed through there at speed, as Steve had intended. Dumber made a vexed sound and then set out on this new trail.
Steve watched him only a moment or two, ascertaining he didn't turn back, before hurrying through the gap and up the creek bed to the body. He didn't know how much time his rocks had bought him and needed to hurry if he wanted any chance of finding the kids before Dumber came back. Maybe he'd just give up, but Steve knew better than to expect that.
He sank down beside the young man and felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. The amount of blood soaking his shirt and the pink-tinged water surrounding the body confirmed it. The man was dead.
Dammit. Steve felt an irrational stab of guilt that he couldn't save the young man and settled back on his haunches.
The change in perspective proved fortuitous as he found himself facing three pairs of eyes behind a tangled thicket. The younger girl had her hand deliberately clamped over her older sister's mouth, and Steve couldn't help the silent sigh that escaped him.
He stepped through a large puddle and hunkered down in front of the kids and went with his instincts.
"Bernice, Tameka sent me to find you. Come on out so I can take you to her family." He held a hand out.
Bernice stifled a sob and crawled through the bushes, taking Steve's hand. Her other hand stayed fixed around her sister's arm and Steve found himself pulling both girls free. The boy, maybe 10 or 12, quickly followed. The two younger kids had paintball guns slung over their shoulders, explaining what they'd been doing out here.
Dumber was still out of sight, and Steve wanted to keep it that way.
"Okay, guys, listen up," he said quietly. He pointed. "You see that boulder up there? That's where we're headed. That's where I left your friends. But we have to hurry before the gunman comes back."
That was enough for the younger kids and they threw themselves up the slope. Shannon continued to stare at her boyfriend's body, until Steve inserted himself between them. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into motion. Even once they started ascending the hill, Steve kept an arm on her, tugging her forward and upward.
Both Bernice and Andy had stopped and when Steve and Shannon came abreast of them, the kids reached out and grabbed their sister, pulling her along after them. Free, Steve paused, surveying the landscape, searching for more civilians as well as the gunmen. Finding none, he finished the ascent as quickly as possible; the kids had stopped to wait for him and Steve was forcefully reminded of his dad at the minivan.
He hustled them along and behind the boulder and allowed them all a few minutes tearful reunion, a respite that seemed to bring both Belinda and Shannon further from breakdowns.
Shannon shivered violently, only wearing a long-sleeved tee over what looked like a tank top. He resisted rolling his eyes. That's what she decided to wear in the mountains in December when they'd been forecasting rain for the past week?
"She dressed for Troy's benefit." Bernice was suddenly at his elbow, effortlessly following his eyes and thoughts. She did roll her eyes. "She was giving him an opportunity to be chivalrous and give her his jacket. He didn't," she finished scornfully.
Steve sighed and awkwardly pulled off his flannel jacket. It was heavy with moisture but still warm and dry on the inside due to its insulated lining and his body heat. He helped Shannon shrug into it. It hung on her slighter frame and even after zipping it up, she wrapped her arms over her chest. He knew he was going to miss it soon enough as the mizzle showed no sign of letting up.
"Did any of you see anybody else out there?" Steve asked.
They all answered negatively.
"Now what?" Belinda asked unsteadily. "You aren't going to leave us, are you?"
Steve answered the first question and let them all assume he meant both. "I'm going to take you to my father and friends. And then we're going to get you out of here."
Especially when it's cold,
Especially when you're lonely
When your little heart is lost
Trying to find its way
I know the world is always changing
But, remember son, that some things never change
Steve tried not to show the pain his dad was causing him as he cleaned the furrow left in his shoulder from the passing bullet. He sat on a fallen tree trunk in the creek bed, getting muddier with the continued drizzle, so it was easier for Mark to take care of the wound. He had said nothing since Steve finished outlining his plan, merely concentrating on the task at hand. Steve shivered, his shirt off his shoulder to give Mark access to the area. He thought he could trump whatever argument his dad made against his role but this unexpected silence on the matter was starting to become nerve-wracking.
"Don't worry, Jarrod," Deon's voice floated over to them from the trail running along the bed. "My uncle Steve's a cop. He won't let the bad man hurt us."
His flock had been tended to since joining Mark and the others and now waited on the Sloans before continuing their escape. Belinda and Shannon were coming through their traumas, though the girl was awfully quiet.
And who could blame her? Deon's words were lies as far as she was concerned; Steve hadn't kept the bad man from killing her boyfriend so how could he protect them? Steve was sure the kid's parents would think so too. If only he'd done something different at the minivan or gone back after getting his dad safe and done … something.
Logically he knew he wasn't to blame for the kid's death or the actions of the escaped prisoners, but he felt responsible in a way, by proxy if nothing else. He was a cop: it was his duty to protect the general populace.
"I'm going with you," Mark announced mildly.
Steve knew that tone well, the one that said Mark was prepared to engage in a battle he felt confident in winning.
As they'd already been through this, Steve took a few moments to get his arguments lined up while he pulled his shirt back on and fumbled with the buttons with trembling hands. The shirt, a long-sleeved chambray worn over a tee, was wet enough as to offer little protection against the damp wind. And the afternoon was receding, dropping the temperature bit by bit.
"Here, let me." Mark pushed his hands away and deftly finished the buttons despite the wetness.
"I don't think you've done that for me since I was five," he commented wryly.
"Well, you know, it doesn't matter how old you get, you're still my little boy."
Steve ducked his head until he felt the flush dissipating from his cheeks at his father's rarely spoken sentiment. He sighed inwardly at the somberness of the tone, at odds with the mood he had tried to create.
"Dad. Amanda needs you. They all need you."
"What about you?"
"I need not to have to worry about you underfoot. Or wonder where the hell you are and if the next bullet's going to hit you."
He winced as his temper got the better of him; Mark looked stricken, making Steve feel even guiltier. He didn't want to hurt his dad, but for God's sake, Steve would barely be able to take care of himself, let alone somebody else. And he'd worry if Mark was with him, worry about Mark. No. He needed to keep him safe. His dad was far too important to risk.
"Dad, I'm sorry," he offered, trying to put into a touch, into a smile, into his eyes what Mark meant to him so he'd know why he couldn't let him come now. "You have to call for help, get SWAT up here. You need to make sure no one else comes back here." He met his father's eyes and added, "You have to think of all the kids."
He meant the ones in their party as much as any others who might wander into the path of a bullet all unaware.
Mark looked at him sharply, his countenance pinched. "What about my own?"
Steve smiled affectionately. "Dad, your kid has training and experience in this sort of thing. I'll be okay." Well … maybe not okay, but he was more prepared and better equipped than anyone else here was.
"Huh. I didn't know the LAPD trained for such terrain," Mark said acerbically. "I would've thought abandoned buildings and dilapidated warehouses were more their thing."
Steve's smile broadened, recognizing his dad's capitulation to his trump card, though there was no joy in outmaneuvering Mark. But there were too many lives at stake and if keeping them safe kept his father safely out of harm's way, then Steve could rejoice in that. "I was actually thinking of Vietnam."
Mark turned away, and Steve gave him time to compose himself. His dad was a private person and wouldn't want anyone—not even his son—to witness his visible agitation so he scanned the way he had come, alert for any movement. He kept half an eye on the group on the bank. Many of them were staring the same way.
Mark had regained control by the time he turned back to his son. He held Steve's arms, the heat of his palms warm through the wet sleeves; it felt good. "Just watch them. Try not to engage. I mean it, Steve. Surveillance only." His voice was gruff with suppressed emotion.
"Sure, Dad," Steve agreed easily, not adding—though it was unspoken between them—that he'd insert himself between the escapees and the public, especially if it included his dad, and that he'd do whatever it took to keep him safe.
Mark gave Steve a small shake. He swallowed a couple times before finally saying, "Steven Michael … you be careful, son."
Steve didn't want to leave it like this between them and he didn't want to say good-bye—that was too final—so he gave his dad another smile and said, "Always am."
A tiny spark of amusement lit Mark's eyes. "If this is your idea of careful"—he indicated the blood at shoulder and ribs—"don't ever give me a demonstration of carelessness."
"You've got it, Dad."
Steve still wore a small smile when they rejoined the others.
"Hey, Andy, can I borrow that paintball gun for a while?" he asked.
"It's a paintball marker," the boy corrected precisely, making no move to hand it over. "Mom won't let us play with guns."
Bernice rolled her eyes and jabbed her brother. "You're such a dork," she grumbled, unslinging her paintball gun and handing it to Steve. "It's ready to go. Why do you need it?" she asked suspiciously.
"Just in case," he said evasively, shrugging.
Bernice's eyes suddenly rounded, and her mouth formed a soundless 'o' as comprehension set in. She gave herself a shake and then clumsily groped at the straps of the hard-shelled body armor she wore. "You should take this too."
Steve stopped her. "That's okay. It wouldn't fit me anyway." He didn't add that while it was great for paintball, it would do nothing to stop a bullet because he didn't want her thinking about that.
Andy swallowed hard, catching up to his sister in a rush. "Um … I can go with you."
"Nope," Steve said conversationally, as if there was absolutely no danger involved in doing what he had to do. Mark stiffened beside him. "What you can do for me is help my friend Jesse there. It's important he not put any weight on that foot."
"Yeah, okay," Andy agreed eagerly.
"Alright, folks, listen up." Steve raised his voice slightly, getting everybody's attention. "My dad's going to get you out of here now. Stay together. Do what he says. Don't panic. And you'll all be just fine."
"What are you going to do?"
There was a breathy tremulousness to Shannon's voice that fanned Steve's guilt enough that he felt he owed her the truth. "I'm going to keep anyone from following you."
It was a bold promise, and he knew it.
Amanda came up to him before they left. She didn't have Mark's inhibitions and tears mixed freely with rainwater on her face as she threw her arms up around his neck. "Don't you do anything stupid," she whispered in his ear. "You better come back, Steve. Back to your dad."
Steve returned the embrace. "That's the idea."
"It better be. Or I swear I'll kill you myself."
He laughed, holding her a bit tighter.
"I'll see you at the hospital," Jesse said, propped up between Andy and Bernice. "We need to get those injuries properly dressed, and Mark said your shoulder needs sutures."
"Sure thing, Jess. Go on."
They started away, when Jesse tossed over his shoulder, "Just remember to duck, okay?"
Steve watched them out of sight, this motley band of survivors brought together by a set of unfortunate circumstances. Shannon and Tameka would spell Andy and Bernice as Jesse's crutches; Belinda, Amanda, and Shannon each held a child by the hand; and all his dad had to do was follow the trail signs back to the complex's office and parking lot. They were out of his hands.
Now it was time to keep his promise.
It was only because Steve had previously seen Dumber there and was prepared to again that he reacted to the gunman first as he rounded the boulder where he'd first discovered Tameka and her family. He just didn't expect him 10 feet away. He was aiming and firing before he consciously reached that decision, before Dumber could raise his gun.
Dumber shouted as the first pellet shattered across his cheek. The second exploded across his forehead, both disgorging thick, bright pink fill.
"My eyes!" he shrieked, digging at them with his fingers.
Steve stepped up to him, reversed the paintball gun, and smacked him in the temple with the stock once, twice. Dumber crumpled.
He was coming to by the time Steve got the shoulder strap off the marker and used it to deftly secure Dumber's wrists behind his back. Steve divested him of his gun.
He couldn't believe his good luck in eliminating one of the fugitives so quickly. Hopefully it'd continue until the cavalry arrived because he had nothing else to hold the other two with.
He had just pulled Dumber to his feet when gunfire blistered the air. Then he was twisting and falling, landing hard in thorny branches. He slid a little down the incline, which saved his life, as he ended up in a small hollow surrounded by chaparral, obscuring him from the gunman's sight.
Adrenaline flooded his system and Steve took a couple of breaths through his nose, centering himself, and listened to the clear sound of a magazine being forcefully ejected. The new one slammed into place, and Steve surged up and fired a single shot from his purloined gun.
His attacker—Steve saw it was Tweedle-Dum—fell without a sound.
He sat for a minute, hoping it was inhaling gunpowder that so unsettled his stomach. He wished he'd drunk more water from the bottle Mark had used to clean his wounds.
Get a grip, Sloan, he admonished himself. He didn't know where Tweedle-Dee was; hell, he didn't even know if Tweedle-Dum still posed a threat or if Dumber was still secured. He pushed himself upright. He felt woozy and swayed unsteadily.
The right side of his ribcage felt as if someone had used a burning branch to carve a deep trough. It took him a few moments longer to realize that the hot stickiness he felt there was blood. Great. He'd never hear the end of it from Jesse. Worse, the left side had been shot before. Steve snorted. At least it was a matched set. Somehow, he didn't think his dad would be as amused.
His first step back up the steep hill alerted him to a further problem as his knee buckled and he met the ground hard. Ah, hell; another one? He probed his leg and hissed as his fingers encountered the hole in it. Now that he was aware of it, pain receptors went into overdrive, firing on all cylinders. Steve didn't feel an exit wound. For a few minutes he stayed there, pressing the tail of his shirt into the wound to staunch the bleeding and just breathing.
A sense of looming disaster soon drove him to his feet again. He clenched the pain between his teeth and made his way back up the slope.
Tweedle-Dum had apparently come from between the free-standing boulder and the bony ridge behind it. He was dead. So was Dumber. He had taken the brunt of the gunfire as he'd been standing in front of Steve. Hmm … he supposed a bullet in his thigh and another scoring his ribs was nothing considering what happened to Dumber.
So where was Tweedle-Dee? Had he come up here with his companions? Or maybe been drawn here by all the gunfire? Had Steve hurt him enough earlier that he stayed behind at the minivan? Which led to more bad scenarios. If he went back up to the road … if he hitched a ride or carjacked somebody there was no telling where he'd end up.
Steve briefly considered climbing the bony ridge again to see if the height advantage could help him spot Tweedle-Dee but decided against it. His body hurt enough, and the landscape was already doing a slow revolve around him without him making matters worse by putting himself on an exposed height.
Movement caught his eye down in the creek bed. Tweedle-Dee. He was too far away for an accurate shot with a handgun. Apparently Tweedle-Dee had the same problem for he turned and haltingly ran away.
Steve flung himself down the steep slope after him. He had to make sure he didn't escape, didn't circle around him and somehow intercept Mark and the others. That fear—Tweedle-Dee evading him only to come upon Mark—drove his leaden legs down the hill and out into the countryside, which undulated gently rather than steeply. Steve kept catching glimpses of movement ahead, propelling him on, terrified for his father.
Coastal sage scrub, herbaceous plants, and grasses mostly replaced the thorny bushes as the land petered out into rumpled folds and creases. An occasional large rock thrust up from the ground. A tree with golden leaves stood as the highest thing around. Steve didn't see his quarry and picked up his pace, ignoring the pain in his sides and the ache in his leg, spurred by a persistent mental image of Tweedle-Dee eluding him only to intercept Mark and shooting him at point-blank range. The drizzle thickened into a light rain, darkening an afternoon already fast approaching night.
Steve squinted at the tree through the moisture, wiping his eyes dry with the inside of his elbow. A shot cracked the air. Sudden igneous pain speared him in the abdomen, and Steve dropped with a grunt.
And even when my life on Earth is through
There will still be a part of me in you
'Cause some things are forever
Nothing's ever gonna take my love from you
Mark led the way, though only in body; his heart and mind were back there with Steve. He registered nothing of the countryside he trekked through unless it plopped itself in the middle of the well-maintained path that was taking them back to the shelter of Mid Country's offices. But to him, the most important member of their group, the one Mark most wanted to provide shelter for, was the one who was absent.
A giggle, so out of place given the events of the past few hours, not to mention so at odds with the growing anxiety in his heart, recalled him to the present, reminding him he wasn't what very well may have been miles behind them.
"Too bad his dad blocked so much of the view while he was fixing him up."
"Yeah. I would've liked to have seen that."
"But did you see his smile?!"
"His dimples! Ohhh…."
Both Tameka and Bernice dissolved into giggles again and Mark found himself involuntarily smiling at their infatuation with his son. When all this was behind them, he thought he'd like to tease Steve about his fan club.
"He touched me!" Bernice squealed, echoed by Tameka. "I may not wash this hand again."
"Did you see how broad his shoulders were? Wow."
"He's very brave." Bernice sounded somewhat pensive.
"And a hunk." Tameka persisted in a lighter tone.
"Yeah." Bernice said dreamily.
"He does have a nice ass," Belinda contributed in a matter-of-fact tone, and Mark nearly sputtered out loud.
"Belinda!" Amanda sounded scandalized.
"What? You can't blame a gal for looking." She added, "I'm just saying I wouldn't mind getting him outta his jeans."
"Mo-om," Tameka cried.
Mark couldn't help but be reminded of CJ's whine before all this started.
Somebody—Mark guessed Amanda—made inarticulate sounds of outrage.
"Wait. You're not dating him, are you?"
Mark couldn't tell which answer would bother Belinda more, though he thought she'd be begging for details if the answer was affirmative.
"Of course not." Amanda's tone was quelling. "Steve is a very good friend who's very dear to me. That's it."
"How can you not want more than that? Given the package it comes in and all."
"I wouldn't mind more than that," Shannon said hesitatingly, and Mark's spirit soared just a little to hear the girl speak at last.
"That's my girl," Belinda said lowly, and Mark thought she'd been looking to draw her out all along.
"Well for starters," Amanda said impatiently, "when he's not in big brother mode, he may as well be one of my sons. Especially when he pushes himself and doesn't want to take care of himself."
"Ohhh. I wouldn't mind taking care of him … especially in bed. Then he could push himself all he wanted."
And just like that, the women were laughing again. Mark's own cheeks blushed at the suggestiveness in Belinda's tone and for the tiniest of moments, he was glad his firstborn wasn't here.
The resilience of kids—and survivors in general—truly amazed Mark. Though part of him thought he needed to lock Steve up to keep him safe from the lot of females behind him.
Which image made him smile.
It didn't last. Because while intellectually Mark knew Steve's plan was the best one available to them, in his heart he felt as if he'd abandoned his son. Worse, in his father's mind, he felt as if he'd sacrificed his son.
Especially since his offspring had essentially confirmed Mark's suspicions that Steve's efforts went into Mark's safety and not his own. His only consolation was that since he wasn't with Steve, his son could focus on keeping himself from harm. And maybe that would be enough to see him through until Mark got reinforcements up here.
It had to be. He refused to contemplate life without Steve.
Sudden gunfire in the distance mocked him, and Mark whirled around. He couldn't see anything, of course—not anything that mattered—but he strained every sense, trying to find even a hint of his son's fate.
Why didn't he hug Steve? He knew his son was up against armed fugitives, knew at least one of them was a murderer. And he couldn't embrace him, couldn't let him know how much he loved him? Why didn't he at least tell him how proud he was of him? As a man, as a cop, as a son. Did Steve even know how Mark felt? He seldom said it, showed it less … but Steve knew. Didn't he?
Steve was coming back. Had to come back. That's why Mark let him go with only a warning to be careful.
And what? Mark argued with himself. Because he was coming back (please, God, oh please), that made it okay to leave those things undone, unsaid? What a cold comfort for Steve when Mark died, leaving his kid nothing to hold onto when the grief was at its sharpest.
Mark caught Amanda's stricken expression. Oddly, it helped calm him, though he still didn't move.
Steve knew. Mark hadn't said anything or shown him because that was too close to good-bye and Mark wouldn't say good-bye. That was too final. And Steve was coming back. Mark would tell him then; Mark would embrace him then, when it meant only a father's love and not a farewell, when neither of them was in danger. He promised himself that. He promised his son.
The others fluttered about noisily, but Mark ignored them all. A single distant gunshot abruptly blasted through their flurries and Mark, as if that's what he had been waiting for, said, "Come on" and turned around and set out as quickly as he could.
It was possible the gunshots had nothing to do with Steve—Mark didn't hunt so didn't know when the season started—but he dared not take that chance. He had to get help for his child before the unthinkable happened.
It was that thought which propelled Mark forward in the office building, straight to the owner—Mark thought his name was Joe—who was speaking to his oldest son. Mark's heart constricted; he wanted to speak to his own son. Steve's flock followed him as if they were chicks and he the mother hen.
"You need to recall everybody and shut down immediately." Gone was his usual polite, genial nature. Steve was willing to sacrifice himself to keep the public safe, so Mark would do everything in his power to make sure there wasn't a public his son needed to die for. What was politeness when weighed in those scales?
He tersely explained the situation even while checking his cellphone for coverage, fully prepared to snatch the office phone off the reception counter if need be, but he had bars and dialed Steve's precinct, eschewing 911 because he needed to tell someone who knew Steve, who had a personal stake in what happened to him.
He turned slightly away from Joe as Cheryl answered Steve's direct line, as he'd hoped she would, apprising her of recent events even while part of his mind registered Amanda taking over the explanation for Joe.
With Cheryl, he didn't need to assure her it was officer involved or convince her he wasn't some crackpot, didn't need to give her Steve's description so he wouldn't be caught in friendly fire, didn't need to stay on the phone and play 20 questions. "For Steve" and Mark knew she'd call who needed to be called and mobilize reinforcements as fast as humanly possible.
Joe was gratifyingly in action when Mark hung up. He had done all that he could, but it wasn't enough. Not with Steve out there with three armed men.
So he took witness statements, took down contact information for everyone at the complex that afternoon, checked the parking lot for vehicles without owners, treated anyone with even the most minor of injuries. He drew on all his years as a physician, firmly keeping his doctor persona in place, distancing himself from the cold fear trying to squeeze the life from his heart.
"It seems you've done this before," Joe commented, looking a little dazed being in the middle of emergency contingencies he'd never thought to use.
"I'm a consultant for the LAPD," Mark said briefly. Then, because it seemed disloyal not to, added, "My son's a lieutenant in Homicide."
Joe didn't comment on the crack in his voice.
"Well," Patty, Joe's wife said, joining them, "Steve Sloan is the only guest, employee, or family unaccounted for."
Just over an hour after getting off the phone with Cheryl, the LAPD arrived in force with the dreary day darkening toward dusk.
Captain Rodgers was in charge, though Mark saw Cheryl in all the bustle as the police took over. He put Jesse and Belinda and Shannon in the two ambulances that had followed the cops up and insisted Amanda take her own sons home and could not be persuaded to let her stay or to leave himself. Steve was here; therefore, Mark needed to be here.
He fiercely returned Amanda's hug and tightly embraced both boys, bringing him to tears where nothing else had touched him since pulling the emotional distance around himself like an old coat. But he hadn't hugged his own boy and part of him wondered if he'd ever get that chance again.
"You call me as soon as you hear anything," Amanda said. "I mean it, Mark. This phone's not leaving my hand until I hear from you. You understand?"
Mark did and nodded. She'd come if he needed her to, she'd drop everything if Steve…. He refused to finish that thought.
He couldn't refuse that look in her eyes, though. "I will, honey. I promise. Now go take care of your boys."
"You tell yours I meant what I said." Wiping the tears away, Amanda fled.
Leaving the parking lot filled only with police vehicles and Steve's truck. Portable lights had been set up there and at the trailhead. It was a hive of activity that Mark didn't feel capable of navigating until Cheryl found him and shoved a Kevlar vest emblazoned with LAPD on the back into his hands.
"It's Steve's," she explained bluntly. She was wearing one herself.
He had it on by the time they reached what seemed to be the command post. Mark couldn't help but wonder how many times Steve had worn it, how many close calls his son may have had, how many he knew nothing about.
"This is a big area," Rodgers snapped, looking down at a map in the descending gloaming. A canopy had been hastily erected over the table against the light rain that had once been a persistent drizzle, and powerful lights beat at the dark. "Does anyone have any idea of where the fugitives or the lieutenant were last seen?"
"I can take you," Mark volunteered. He would not be left behind while these people searched for his son.
"Alright, let's go."
Mark was touched by Cheryl's immediate response. She and several others, likely from Steve's precinct, made to move out.
"You can't take a civilian out there, Banks," the captain barked, halting everyone.
Cheryl jerked her head in Mark's direction. "That's the lieutenant's dad. If you want to poke that particular tiger when we find him, you go right ahead. Me? I don't wanna get mauled."
It gave something for Mark's mind to latch onto besides fear and impatience and despair and he wondered just what sort of reputation he and his son—especially his son—had garnered in the police department for that remark to have the effect it did. He didn't know if he should feel flattered or frightened. He also wondered if Steve's sometime-disobedience was rubbing off on Cheryl and hoped she didn't get disciplined as a result. He suddenly wished captain Newman was here.
The captain drew back as if stung and looked consideringly at Mark, who attempted to appear harmless.
"Fine," he said brusquely. Someone thrust an industrial-grade flashlight into Mark's hands. "Stay behind us and do what you're told."
Grumbling under his breath, he set out, following Mark's directions.
There is no power on Earth
Like your father's love
So big and so strong as your father's love
A promise that's sacred,
A promise from heaven above
Steve waited for the gunman to come into view. He was caught in a depression as the land rose in a vague breaker between him and the tree; coastal sage scrub, herbaceous plants, and an upthrust of rock further concealed his position from Tweedle-Dee. Of course, it worked the reverse too, leaving Steve nothing to shoot at.
His gut hurt like hell, and he wanted to put pressure on it to stem the flow of blood but dared not. His left hand held the gun unwaveringly despite the tremors racking his muscles. He lay half on his side, propped up on his right elbow, waiting.
He wasn't sure how much longer he could. He felt the blood running down his side and soaking into the waistband of his jeans. It was warm and sticky, not the cool slipperiness of rain. He knew his dad would have something to say about Steve not following even basic first aid, slowing blood loss. But with Tweedle-Dee taking his dear sweet time he didn't have much of a choice.
He used the time to get his breathing under control, trying not to wince as every breath fanned the fire in his gut. Son of a bitch, it hurt! His fingers were cold around the gun's grip, rain slicking his hand. He listened to the susurrations of rain through vegetation and told himself that it wasn't his vision graying out around the edges, only rain.
What if Tweedle-Dee didn't come check his handiwork? What if he had continued his flight back to the disabled minivan and from there to the road? God alone knew where he'd end up from there. Worse … what if he was even now making his way around Steve, taking Steve's backtrail all the way to the Center's office and Mark?
Fear compressed his lungs, making drawing even a sip of air torturous. Rage abruptly shouldered fear aside. He would not let Tweedle-Dee—or anyone else—go after Mark. Not as long as he was alive.
He shifted slightly, testing muscles and pain. Everything woke at once, subsumed by the twins rage and fear, leaving him slightly breathless. That was okay, though, because now he knew he could act.
Still he hesitated; if Tweedle-Dee outwaited him and shot him again, Steve might not be so lucky as to remain conscious or even alive. Thereby leaving Mark completely unprotected and undefended. Which was unacceptable. Not to mention Steve….
He heard a muttered curse and labored breathing. He'd nailed Tweedle-Dee with the van's door after all, Steve thought fiercely, even as he pushed himself up, supported by his right hip and hand, gun trained to where he heard Tweedle-Dee's approach. He fired. One shot, entering Tweedle-Dee's shoulder. Not a kill shot. Dammit.
A metallic click was the only response to another trigger pull.
He was moving before he finished cursing, staggering drunkenly to his feet.
Tweedle-Dee had spun around at impact but now faced Steve again. He raised the long object in his hands, and Steve threw the gun at him, forcing Tweedle-Dee to duck to avoid it. He meant to follow up on the distraction but couldn't, up and down having suddenly lost all meaning, stranding him with land and sky topsy-turvy.
He barely raised his arm in time to block a blow. Not a rifle. Branch. Tweedle-Dee must've run out of bullets too.
He couldn't block the reverse swing, which clubbed him in the thigh near his hip. His reflexes were slow enough he found himself on one knee. The branch broke on contact, scattering pieces everywhere. Tweedle-Dee threw the last section at Steve. It struck him in the neck.
Later Steve would realize Tweedle-Dee was searching the ground for more weapons—stones or branches—but to his adrenaline-fueled mind, when Tweedle-Dee turned aside, Steve thought he was going after Mark.
Mustering his waning strength, needing to protect his father, Steve launched himself at Tweedle-Dee. It was an awkward tackle that took his breath first when his body slammed into the other man and again when they fell onto the ground.
He lost time for a while. The only thing he knew was that he couldn't let Tweedle-Dee up to go after Mark.
His first thought when he came back to himself was that he was an idiot for not grabbing the paintball marker's strap since Dumber didn't need it any more. Now how was he supposed to restrain Tweedle-Dee?
Obviously, Steve couldn't let him go or trust him. And they both needed medical attention. Come to think of it, Tweedle-Dee was awfully still underneath him.
Steve shifted to check if Tweedle-Dee wore a belt. He did. But he still didn't move. He checked for a pulse, didn't find it. Dusk had fallen under the sodden skies, a prelude to the coming darkness. It made seeing harder, but Steve was able to make out the unnatural angle of Tweedle-Dee's neck and the upthrust of rock which had clearly caused it.
Steve dragged a hand down his face, kneeling beside the body. He shivered violently and pressed his shirt into the hole in his abdomen. He was exhausted and didn't want to contemplate the walk back to the office. If Mark called for back-up as he'd asked—and of course he would—they could find him and save him the agony of getting back to his feet and making the trip on his own. Yeah.
He lost time again, worn and slouched in the rain. A restlessness borne of his last conscious thought brought him back to himself. Dad.
What was taking so long for his dad to find him? Did he make it back to the office? Or had something waylaid the group? Had Steve somehow failed his father?
That drove him unthinkingly to his feet, where he swayed unsteadily as he fought to remain erect. He fisted his shirt into the abdominal wound, nearly sending him under before it had the desired effect of flooding his system with adrenaline. He didn't know how much time he had lost, maybe not as much as he feared. Maybe he hadn't given his dad time enough yet.
It didn't matter. Steve had to get to his dad. And if he didn't start moving, he'd forget he needed to and just curl up and nap, trusting Mark to find him.
But Steve couldn't do that to his dad. He knew Mark was worried about him, knew Mark would blame himself if Steve fell out here all alone—especially if he died out here. Mark hadn't wanted Steve to go on his own, had wanted to accompany him and it turned out having a doctor with him would've been a wonderful thing. For that, Mark would blame himself if Steve didn't make it. Therefore, Steve needed to get back to him, let him know everything was alright.
So Steve oriented himself with the tree in the falling dark and headed back the way he had come in a staggering stutter-step that sent waves of pain crashing through him.
It was the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life. It was the slowest. Dark fell with the rain and he relentlessly pressed on, scattering time in fragments behind him. Gradually, he became aware of lights high above. Maybe he was closer to the Center's office than he'd thought, though he didn't remember climbing the steep hill. At this point he wasn't sure he would. Or could.
Steve lowered his head and lurched onward. For his dad.
Did I hug enough, did I care enough
When you most needed me,
Was I there enough
Enough to make you feel the power of
Your father's love
"Two bodies over here."
"Possible civilian. Is that from a paintball?"
Mark broke from his chaperone and through the officers surrounding the bodies. Even with just flashlight beams breaching the dark, even with the light, steady rain, he saw instantly that neither were his son. He exhaled raggedly, relief and fear warring for dominance in his heart.
"That's from Steve," he offered.
The captain looked irate that he hadn't stayed back as he'd been told. Didn't he realize Mark needed to know if either was Steve? Alive and wounded or …. "A paintball marker was the only weapon he had," he explained.
Even Rodgers looked impressed at that.
"Damn man's gonna give me a coronary," Cheryl muttered at Mark's side. "Taking on three armed men with a paintball gun?"
"Brass balls, Banks. Brass balls," one of the other officers said.
"And all cop," announced the man over the paintball-splattered body. He indicated the makeshift restraints, and Cheryl shook her head. It was difficult to tell what expression she wore.
"Do you recognize either of these men, Dr. Sloan?" the captain asked.
Mark had to clear his throat, thinking of his duty-driven son. "Yes. They're both from the minivan."
"You don't forget the faces of the men who tried to kill your child."
"So, what the hell happened here?" someone demanded.
"More important," Cheryl said, "where's Steve and the other fugitive?"
While everyone else trained their lights on the bodies and the area surrounding them looking for evidence or inspiration, Mark didn't care which, he peered over the edge of the hill. Steve was still out there; an armed and dangerous man was out there with him. He had to find him.
Mark took a couple of steps down, the better to tune out the police. He shined his flashlight in the immediate area and in ever-widening sweeps. There was a definite trail there—broken chaparral and bent plants and what looked like slide marks. Unfortunately, Mark couldn't tell if it was made by him and Steve earlier or if it had been made since then.
He took a few more cautious steps and sent his beam to the bottom of the hill, sweeping it along the ground as far as it could penetrate. His heart reeled as something moved in the rainy dark.
The gait was wrong and so too the posture, but Mark recognized that figure all the same—would recognize it anywhere and always—and it was the wrongness that sent him slipping and sliding down the hill at what he'd normally consider a reckless speed. He remembered then he didn't have his bag, having put it back in Steve's truck after treating his last impromptu patient. He didn't tell anyone where he was or what he was doing. He didn't shout to the person below. But only because his throat had constricted, barely allowing a trickle of air through. Somewhere in the back of his mind he marveled he didn't break his neck or a hip.
Then he was miraculously at the bottom, the beam of light swinging wildly, yet the figure didn't look up, just took another shambling step. Without a thought, frantic with fear and worry, Mark rushed to him, catching Steve just as he collapsed.
One of Steve's long arms shot out, encircling Mark's shoulders, but Mark thought it was instinctual only; his son didn't seem aware of his surroundings at all. He still hadn't looked up.
Mark felt his age as he took Steve's weight. His heft was greater than his offspring's, but Steve was all lean muscle and it proved heavier than Mark could bear. He could, however, control their descent to the ground, though he landed harder than he planned, his son still in his arms. Their checked fall seemed to rouse Steve. Mark felt him shift against him and then draw away, sitting back on his heels, though his arm remained hooked over Mark's shoulder.
"I'm here, Steve."
Mark set the flashlight down, illuminating his son.
Steve lifted his head, the cerulean eyes dark with pain and fatigue. Mark fought to keep his composure. He could see his offspring was at the end of his endurance. He also didn't miss that his left hand stayed fisted into his abdomen and the stain there darker than the rest of the saturated shirt. He wanted to shout out to the cops atop the hill, get the help his son desperately needed, but couldn't get his voice past the stricture in his throat.
"Dad, are you okay?" asked his exasperating, wonderful, beautiful boy and Mark nearly wept at his selflessness.
It took several moments before he could speak. "I am." His hand tightened on Steve's arm, and his son's eyes drifted up to his own. This was important, he needed his kid to get it. "I was worried about you."
Steve let out a gentle sigh. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"No," Mark said sharply, capturing Steve's attention again. "Don't you ever be sorry for that, Steve. That's my job. I'd rather have you to worry about than you—" he broke off, leaving it unsaid but between them nonetheless.
He had never thought of it like that before, but it was true: better to be panicky with worry than not to have Steve alive to worry about. He still couldn't say those words aloud. Irrational, yes … but he wouldn't say them. Couldn't say them.
He felt the tremors rampant in the body he held and pulled his firstborn closer, cradling him against his chest. It was a mute testament to Steve's injuries and exhaustion that he allowed it.
"You're going to be alright, son," he murmured. He didn't know if the reassurance was for Steve or himself.
Shouts broke out from the hilltop, and Mark was nearly blinded as what seemed like a hundred flashlights spotlighted him. His son folded bonelessly into him.
But he had fallen unconscious and there he remained. Even when they got to Community General via the ambulance captain Newman had commandeered, getting to Mid Country about the same time Mark had stepped down the hillside. Mark stared helplessly after Steve's gurney as the ER staff whisked him away to an operating room, a tiny fissure of apprehension worming through his heart that it hadn't been Jesse waiting for them, wasn't Jesse in charge of Steve's care. He knew the doctors and nurses at CGH were top-notch and that he could trust them but still … Jesse had been Steve's doctor through some traumatic events and had always brought him back. Mark needed that reassurance now.
Steve had made it this far, he reminded himself; his son was strong. His constitution wouldn't allow him to survive the gunmen only to succumb to his injuries here at hospital, surrounded by highly trained staff and the latest advancements in medical technology. It just couldn't.
No matter the father's fears.
"Mark," Amanda said, breaking into his stupor. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to see her.
She took one look at him and took control. He was too worried about Steve to protest and let Amanda have her way. So, down to the locker rooms for a shower and clean, dry clothes; then off to the cafeteria for food he didn't want, but which he ate at her insistence; and then finally to the doctors' lounge, where, waiting and trying to divert his fears, he finally managed, "How?" trusting her to figure out what he meant.
"Cheryl called me."
"What about CJ and Deon?"
"Mark." She laid a hand comfortingly on his arm. "My boys are old enough to understand what happened. They're more concerned about Steve than what might have happened to them. I knew the best way to distract them was to take them to my parents. Mom and Dad love having them."
Mark summoned up a smile. "Thank you. I'm not sure it's necessary. He's going to be fine."
By her expression and the gentleness in her eyes, Mark didn't think she believed him. He wasn't sure he believed himself. "Jesse?"
"Resting comfortably. Dr. Hanlon decided to keep him overnight and cast his foot tomorrow after the swelling has gone down some. Grade III sprain. Belinda had a sprained arm. She went home with her kids. As did Shannon." Amanda suddenly grinned. "They were all rather taken with Steve. Those girls will have pleasant dreams tonight thanks to him. I think Andy wants to be a cop now, and Jarrod wants to start calling him 'uncle' too."
Mark smiled again, this time genuinely.
"They all wanted to be here, to see him again and thank him personally. I told them they could come back the day after tomorrow. Give him a chance to rest up. I hope you don't mind?"
"No, honey, it's fine. I'm sure he'd like that very much."
In truth, so did Mark. Because it was making a promise, planning a future with Steve in it.
"Good. The hospital and PD have both issued statements," Amanda said in a rush.
Mark frowned. "I don't understand."
"Press found out what happened. All of it. LA Times interviewed me and the others. There'll be a story in tomorrow's edition. They want to come back and do a follow-up interview with Steve when he's better. They're calling him a hero," she added. There were tears in her eyes.
He always had been to Mark. He knew his son hated that kind of attention. He would say he was just doing his job or what anyone else would've done, that what he did wasn't special in the least. But it was; to Mark, to the families he got out of there, to the loved ones waiting for them. Mark knew Steve would endure the process—especially if the order came from the LAPD—but he wouldn't like it.
"You should've heard Jesse's interview," Amanda said mischievously. "I don't think those kids are the only ones with a case of hero worship."
Mark laughed. An hour ago, he didn't think that was possible. It was a marvelous thing, hope.
He kept it with him through the night and into the morning where he sat at his son's bedside gently holding his hand. He had slept on a cot in Steve's room once they brought him in from recovery. Things had been touch and go for a while, between the bullets and blood loss, and an opportunistic infection had set in. Which wasn't too surprising given the scratches and lacerations covering his body, predominantly his arms; his jeans had protected him better than the shirt. A bruised scrape stood out vividly against the pallor of his face. Mark had lost track of how long it had taken to get Steve's temperature up from the hypothermia he was suffering; they'd started him on antibiotics before it could truly soar out of control.
Mark was still waiting for him to wake up. He had never been good at sitting around doing nothing, especially when he was worried. He knew Steve was fine, would make a full recovery, but….
He idly traced the long fingers he held; a surgeon's hands or an artist's. He turned it over, rubbed the calluses on the palm; a warrior's hands. He carefully clasped it in both of his own; his son's hands, his little boy's.
The last time Steve had been shot, Mark hadn't stayed with him. He still had nightmares about it. Not about being framed for murder or how he was found guilty and sent to prison or even when he was put on death row. No, what still sometimes roused him from sleep with agonized weeping was that he hadn't been there for his son. Steve needed him, needed his dad to take care of him and Mark hadn't been there. Instead, his son, who had died, pushed himself too hard too fast, discharging himself AMA to prove his father's innocence. There was only so much the human body could take—and Steve wasn't as young as he used to be—and Mark wondered if that previous disregard for his own health was catching up to him now, if that's why Steve hadn't yet awoken. If Mark had stayed with him then, as he should've, would Steve be awake now?
He was anxious to get him home, to coddle him for a while; he thought his son would allow him that, would know he needed to do that. For this time, for the other time.
The hand in his squeezed back, startling Mark so badly he gaped stupidly at his firstborn.
"You said you were okay." Steve's voice was mildly censorious.
It took a moment for Mark to realize Steve was reacting to the cot, and he smiled. "I am. And you will be."
"Then why didn't you go home? I feel pretty good, all things considered. I'm not even in ICU."
Mark glanced at the heart monitor and IV line, replacing lost blood volume, carrying antibiotics. "I needed to be here."
Steve's expression softened, acknowledging the weight behind that simple declaration.
"How long have you been awake?"
"Not long." Steve shrugged. "You looked preoccupied. I didn't want to disturb you."
Mark frowned slightly and clutched Steve's hand. "I hope you know you can disturb me whenever you want," he ventured.
Steve rolled his eyes. "I know, Dad."
Mark raised the bed and asked if Steve was hungry.
"What I really want is to go home."
"Not for a couple of days. And it'll be with crutches."
Steve appeared surprised, looked down at the bulge under the blanket over his thigh, and back up at his father. "Jesse must have me on the really good stuff. I don't even feel anything."
Steve's expression changed again. "Except it wasn't Jesse, was it? How are they?"
Mark settled back in his chair. "We're all just fine, thanks to you."
Steve looked away, countenance closing off. "Not all of them." He glanced at Mark. "I didn't save Troy."
Mark inhaled sharply and briefly shut his eyes. He should've known his son would focus on the one who died and judge himself against that one perceived failure. Until Steve, Mark hadn't realized there was such a thing as too responsible. But it was all part of his protectiveness.
"The young man who died?" Mark gently clarified. "He was dead before you got down there, Steve. There was nothing you could've done for him."
His stubborn offspring shook his head. "If I had done something different at the minivan, maybe I could've prevented the whole thing."
"How?" Mark demanded. "You weren't armed."
"I know, Dad, here"—Steve pointed to his head—"but here"—he touched his chest over his heart—"I'm not so sure."
"I see. Well, you know, if you insist on blaming someone other than the man who pulled the trigger, then that makes it my fault. Not yours."
"What?" Steve said heatedly, expression melting back into his face. "No, Dad. It's not your fault. How can you even think that?"
My point exactly.
"If I hadn't been with you at the minivan, you would've done things differently," Mark pointed out, following Steve's own logic.
Of course, if Mark hadn't been there, 'differently' likely would've equated foolhardy or dangerous with a good chance he'd never see his son alive again; warnings wouldn't have gotten out and the police wouldn't have been up there so quickly. All in all, Mark was extremely grateful he had been with his son and unequivocally told him so.
"You can't save them all, son. No more than I can or anyone else." He added softly, "It's to your credit that you care so much."
Steve seemed to ponder this. Mark let out a breath when the rigidness loosened in his firstborn's set shoulders and the tension eased around his mouth. His lips twitched. "You're right, Dad. As usual."
Mark smiled benevolently and gingerly patted his arm, mindful that some of those scratches ran deep. "Good. Since you're listening to me: you can't know how things would've played out if you had acted differently. You'll drive yourself crazy doing that. And you're not the one who put that gun in his hands or pulled the trigger."
"Alright, Dad. I get it."
Mark could see he meant it, that he accepted it, his usual equilibrium restoring itself. He decided to wait to broach the subject of the upcoming story; there were other things he needed to talk about with his son first.
He drew a breath and blurted, "Do you want me to quit?"
Steve looked at him, perplexed. "Being my father?"
Mark pinned him with gimlet eyes for such a ridiculous notion, though he scrutinized his offspring for even a hint that Steve doubted his place in Mark's life. Finding nothing but genuine confusion, Mark relaxed. Of course, he needed to be more specific; Steve hadn't been present for his dad's epiphany nor was he privy to Mark's internal musings.
He elucidated. "Do you want me to quit consulting for the PD? Quit butting in your cases?"
Steve's confusion morphed to concern, and he straightened, wincing as the movement pulled at the abdominal wound and his ribs. "What the hell happened out there, Dad?"
"I saw things from a different perspective."
It was Steve's turn to study Mark though he found nothing catastrophic for he settled back in bed and gave Mark an amused smile. "Mmhmm. Like you'd actually stay out of my cases."
Mark gripped Steve's forearm. He didn't smile, and his voice was gruff. "If you want me to, I will."
Steve seemingly gave the question the consideration it deserved, and Mark quietly awaited the verdict. If Steve wanted him to back off, he'd have to make sure Jesse stepped back as well, otherwise he would've accomplished nothing, leaving his firstborn more concerned for his business partner than his own life. Surprisingly—or maybe not, considering the alternative—Mark found himself wholly and willingly prepared to discontinue all amateur sleuthing. It was a small price to pay, a pittance really, for his son.
"I want to catch the bad guys," Steve said solemnly, eyes sober as he met Mark's gaze. "I want to put them away to protect others. To bring justice to their victims and victims' loved ones. To do that, I'll utilize every resource available to me. Even my father. I want you to stay, Dad."
He paused and Mark, having a good idea what he wanted to say, plunged ahead. "I'll be careful, Steve. I promise you. I'll listen to you. I'll consider what I'm doing before doing it."
Steve, in a transparent attempt to lighten the mood, said, "I can certainly live with that."
They looked at each other in that silent communication Mark had never known with anyone else—not even Katherine—conveying their mutual love and respect and gratitude. Then he stood and carefully hugged his kid to him. After a hesitation, Steve's strong arms came up around him.
Mark held on for a long time, rejoicing in the solidness of his son's body, in the indisputable fact that the gunmen hadn't killed him, letting it warm him after the coldness of the mountains.
When they separated, Steve looked at him askance. "What was that for?"
"To let you know how proud I am of you. To tell you how much I love you."
Steve's cheeks tinged pink in embarrassment, and Mark thought it was something his fan club would like to see.
"I know you love me, Dad. Always have." He tilted his head, a smile playing about his mouth. "And I'm going to be okay. My doctor said so."
Mark tenderly cupped his cheek. "It doesn't hurt to tell you … or show you from time to time," he suggested quietly.
Steve's flush deepened, but he appeared pleased, which pleased Mark even more.
To put them back on more comfortable footing, Mark sat back in his chair and proceeded to regale his son with the colorful account of his unofficial fan club, quietly reveling in his firstborn's presence.
There was no place else he'd rather be. And no one else he'd rather be with.