Just Another Day
It began in the morning, before he even had a chance to shower and dress. In fact, Steve Sloan had barely had time to peel back an eyelid to greet the new day, before and enthusiastic fist began pounding reveille on the front door, too insistent to be ignored. Muttering profusely, he pushed aside the covers and rolled from the bed, dragging a robe around his semi-nude body as he trudged, heavy-footed, into the hall.
The cheerleader smile of the delivery girl was just too bright for that time in the morning and Steve found himself flinching away from her as she chirped "Steve Sloan?"
"Uh-huh..." he responded, leaning a shoulder against the door frame. Ten hours of surveillance followed by a scant four of sleep did not make Steve a happy boy.
The box that the girl held out towards him was long and covered in red foil, the lid secured by gold satin ribbon. "These are for you. Happy Valentine's day, sir."
She thrust a clip board under his nose and he signed his name automatically, glad to be rid of her as she skipped her way to the street. For all he knew, she might have just handed him a ticking bomb, but he was past caring. All he wanted to do was sleep.
Leaving the box, unopened, on the table, he headed into the bathroom to relieve himself. The box, whatever it held could wait until later. It was still early enough for him to grab another hour before heading into work.
Except - the box was of the opinion that it could not wait. As he left the bathroom he felt it calling to him, even though he deliberately turned his steps towards the bedroom, and in the next moment he found himself standing at the table, staring down at the gift. Valentine's Day. Who did he know that would send him a gift, either as a joke or as a serious statement? His first thought was for Amanda and Jesse, no doubt encouraged in the jest by his father. Yep, Amanda would come up with something like this and Jesse would need to be hog-tied to stop him from joining in. Just wait till he saw those two...
But all thought of revenge evaporated as he lifted the lid of the box and folded back the crimson and gold tissue paper. Twelve long-stemmed red roses, their colour hearts-blood deep, their perfume seeming to explode from their confinement and envelop his senses. He shook his head in amazement as he lifted the card and saw the name of the florist, and realised just how much his mysterious admirer must have paid for the gift. There was no way that his friends would invest so much in a simple prank.
He expected the card to be blank, or the message typewritten, but instead a skilled hand had crafted the dedication - No words can express my feelings for you - in sweeping black letters. It sounded - serious and a little - old fashioned, a step away from the 'wham, bam and - what was your name again?' mood that prevailed these days. One thing was certain, this was not Amanda's doing, nor Jesse's come to that. Which meant Steve had a secret admirer.
"Or a stalker," he mused aloud, the thought and the sound of his own voice cutting the stillness startling him.
He looked up sharply as his father walked in and felt his face begin to flame as Mark Sloan's gaze fell to the open box.
"I thought I heard you around. What's this?"
"Nice. Who sent them?"
The broad shoulders rolled in a shrug. "Search me. There's no name on the card."
"'No words can express my feelings for you'?" Mark read the words aloud, glancing up at his embarrassed son. "That's a pretty heavy statement to make to a stranger."
"I know. Ambiguous, too. I mean, the 'feelings' don't necessarily have to be romantic."
Mark's mouth formed a silent 'Oh...', then "So, you have no idea who might have sent them?"
Steve replaced the lid of the box, shutting the flowers away from view. He would decide what to do with them later. "Search me," he said bluntly, not willing to dwell any longer on the possibilities. It was just a prank and, sooner or later, the prankster would give herself away. //Or himself// he corrected, aware that any one of his colleagues at the precinct could easily be behind it.
"So much for a smooth start to the day," he muttered, catching sight of the clock. Too late now for that extra hour of sleep. "I have to get ready for work, dad."
"You're not going to try to find out who's behind this?" Mark sounded surprised, but Steve shook his head.
"Later, maybe. I'm due in court this morning." He began to turn away, then paused, looking back. "Don't worry. When I find out who sent them, you'll be the first to know."
It took Steve fifteen minutes to shower, shave and dress. By the time he met his father in the kitchen the scent of fresh brewed coffee and warm bread was wafting through the house. His stomach growled in response.
"Got time for breakfast?" the older Sloan asked.
One eye on the clock, Steve shook his head. "Just coffee."
"Steve, if you're going to be in court all day you need to eat."
"Dad, I really don't have --"
"Time? That's what you always say. But today you're going to make time," he insisted, setting a plate of eggs and wholemeal toast in front of his son. Having learned a long time ago that there were times when his father could be swayed and times when he could not, Steve perched on a stool and reached for his fork.
He finished the eggs in double-quick time, acutely aware that there was something odd in his father's behaviour that morning. Mark was forever nagging him to take better care of himself, eat regular meals and so on, and Steve played the part of the dutiful son by studiously ignoring him. This morning it was different. Since the moment Mark had come looking for him, it was as if the older man was trying to keep him from leaving the house too soon.
"So, have you had anymore thoughts about who sent those flowers?" Mark asked, as Steve finished his coffee and stood up to leave.
"Believe me, dad, I'm trying not to think too much about it."
"Most men would be flattered to have a secret admirer."
"And if there was a woman in my life right now who fit the bill, then so would I. But, knowing my luck, it'll turn out to be some flake I sent to Death Row." Saying it out loud made him shudder. Too many cops he knew had become victims themselves of the people they had helped to convict.
"Now I really do have to go, dad." He pulled on his jacket and gathered his keys. "Are we still on for dinner tonight?"
Mark laughed. "Sure."
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing. Just thinking about the looks we'll get when we turn up at the restaurant. I mean, two unattached guys having dinner together on Valentine's..." He sniggered again and Steve rolled his eyes.
"As I recall, you asked Amanda and Jesse to join us."
"I did, but Amanda can't get a sitter and Jesse has made other - arrangements. So it looks like it'll be just you and me, my boy."
As comfortable as he was in his father's company, Steve found himself struggling to hide his disappointment at the sudden change in their plans. He had badly wanted an excuse to spend Valentine's evening with Jesse and this had seemed to be the perfect opportunity to do so, allowing him to indulge his fantasies without arousing suspicion.
Steeling himself, determined not to hurt his father's feelings after Mark had gone to such trouble to arrange the evening, he shrugged. "Ah well, there's always next time. I'll see you back here at around seven-thirty."
"I'll be ready," Mark nodded, reaching for the newspaper. "Take care out there, Steve."
"Sure dad. Always do."
It sounded like any other working morning and yet, as Steve left the house he could not help but wonder what kind of 'arrangement' Jesse had made and he felt a twang of jealousy as he pondered the colour of her hair and eyes, the brightness of her smile. One thing he did know for certain - Jesse Travis had great taste in women, on the outside at least. Appalling luck, but great taste. If only he could be as interested in a tall, fair-haired cop...
His preoccupation with Jesse had almost succeeded in putting the roses out of his mind by the time he reached the bottom of the steps and turned to where his car was parked. It was an overreaction, getting so wound up over a bunch of flowers. It had been someone's idea of a joke, nothing more. Time to forget it and move on.
And then he saw his car...
It soon became apparent to Steve that whoever was trying to seduce him - or stalk him - was not letting up.
The first clue, after the roses of course, had been finding his car adorned with streamers and two large bunches of red, heart-shaped balloons entreating him to 'Be My Valentine'. But it had not ended there for, after stripping away the decorations, he had arrived at the precinct to find a very large teddy bear, wearing a t-shirt embroidered with a silver heart and the words 'Hug Me', sitting in his chair. That had been followed in mid-afternoon by yet another delivery girl bearing a Valentine's order of champagne and candy.
Steve engaged all of his detective skills in an attempt to discover the identity of the sender, calling suppliers, questioning friends and openly accusing colleagues, but all to no avail. By the time he stopped by at Community General, to verify one or two things in the Jackson autopsy report that Amanda had faxed to him that morning, Steve was somewhere between exasperated and despondent, reduced to hoping that this was a 'one-day-only' deal and that, whoever was behind it, she would crawl back into the woodwork once midnight struck.
In reality the truth was, no woman could interest Steve Sloan these days, no matter how beautiful, intelligent or witty she might be. His heart was no longer up for grabs - Jesse Travis had done that the first time Steve had seen him smile. He had managed to control it at first, sublimating his desire in transient encounters with inconsequential women. His mind filled to capacity with images of Jesse, he would find a girl - usually one that bore a passing resemblance to the doctor - bed her and move on without a second thought, though even that had declined in recent months. In fact, in the last six months he had been with only one woman, on one tawdry night when need had overpowered common sense. He had picked her up in a bar and taken her to a motel on the far side of town, screwed her, and had her back at the bar before closing time. Next morning he had felt sickened by the whole experience and had promised himself it would never happen again. From that day to this, his only companion had been his right hand and his increasingly erotic fantasies about Jesse. It would be Jesse's eyes that smiled at him in welcome, Jesse's mouth so sweet beneath his own, Jesse's fingers that wrapped around his desperate flesh and pushed their way into him. Jesse's cute little ass that waggled so invitingly as it offered itself to be taken.
Jesse... Jesse... Jesse.... Nothing else mattered.
"Hey Steve. How ya' doing?"
The papers in Steve's hand fluttered to the floor as the young man bounded from the elevator and slapped him on the shoulder.
"Jess --" He coughed, trying to get his voice back under control. "Ugh... Fine. I'm... fine."
Jesse's smile did not waver but his eyes, those beautiful eyes that could melt Steve to the core with one look, had narrowed and were lasering the detective from head to toe with a look that proclaimed he did not believe it for a moment. To get away from him, Steve dived for the fallen report. Unfortunately, with an over-enthusiastic 'Here, let me...', Jesse beat him to it and Steve was treated to the sight of the object of his desire on his knees, smiling up at him, that sweet mouth with its slightly parted lips just inches from Steve's crotch. It was the stuff of many a heated night of solitary passion and Steve felt himself grow instantly hard, was immediately grateful for snug underwear and loose pants. Had he opted that morning for jeans, his secret - and other things - would have been well and truly out.
But the moment passed all too soon and Jesse was back on his feet, handing over the papers, and Steve was breathing deeply, slowly getting his body back under control for the second time in as many minutes. The murmured 'Thanks, Jess' came out a little shaky, but the younger man did not seem to notice and Mark Sloan's sudden appearance on the scene was Steve's final salvation.
"Steve? I didn't know you were dropping by."
"Hi dad," he greeted. "I didn't know myself until I got Amanda's report."
"Oh? Well anyway, I'm glad you did. Saves me a phone call."
"Why? What's up?"
Mark shrugged. "Nothing much. Just wanted to let you know I might be a little late this evening."
Steve had reached the stage where he was no longer sure whether to be disappointed or pleased. "Is there a problem?"
"No really. I just want to make sure Mrs Ottoman is stable before I leave. I shouldn't be more than an hour."
It sounded reasonable to Steve, knowing how he liked to fuss over his patients like a mother hen. "Sure, dad. Want me to call the restaurant and have them hold our table?"
"Well as a matter of fact, I was going to suggest I meet you there. I already picked up my things from the house and it'll make more sense if I go straight from here to the restaurant."
"Sounds okay to me," Steve agreed. More than okay, since it would give him time to have a drink or two to dull the edges of regret and maybe get him in the party mood. The last thing he needed was his father smothering him in paternal concern.
The arrangements made, Mark returned to his rounds, leaving Steve alone with Jesse, his earlier awkwardness returning.
"So... Jesse... Dad tells me you won't be joining us tonight after all." Was he mistaken, or was there something odd about the way Jesse pulled a file from the rack and slapped it open, furiously scribbling notes on a pad. If he wasn't mistaken, it looked as if his friend was - nervous.
"Ah, no. Sorry, Steve, but - something came up."
//I bet it did,// mused Steve sourly, wondering which of the new nurses would be favouring the doctor tonight. Well, at least one of them would be getting more for Valentine's than a hand job. Everyone should spend Valentine's night with someone and he could not begrudge Jesse the company, even if he did wish it could be himself that provided it.
Deciding he really did not want to stick around for the details, he gave the smaller man's arm a gentle punch. "Well, you have a good time, buddy. I'll - catch you later."
Wide, confused eyes flashed a complicated look at him before softening into an affectionate smile. "Sure, Steve, later. You and Mark have a good time too."
"Oh I'm sure we will," Steve responded with much more conviction than he felt. "We'll have a great time."
It was seven-thirty exactly when the cab dropped Steve outside Orsini's and already the line of hopeful last-minute diners was reaching past the first window of that establishment. Steve felt a stab of guilt that he and his father might be stealing a table from some more deserving - and genuine - couple and wondered if it might not be a good idea to call Mark and cancel. They could always order pizza... But then, on the other hand, his dad was probably already halfway there and there had been enough disappointments today.
Right up to the last moment before leaving the house, Steve had hoped to find some clue to the identity of his secret admirer but even the card he had found in the mailbox that evening had drawn a blank. Whoever was behind the stream of gifts, they certainly had no intention of being found out.
After checking in at the desk and being told that no, Dr Sloan had not arrived, he followed the waiter across the opulent dining room, playing tag with the black clad figure as they made their way between tables decorated for the occasion with roses and candles and crisp white linen. A few couples and small groups had already arrived and were talking quietly as they waited for their order to be taken. One woman, elegantly beautiful, sat alone and Steve's gaze met hers as he passed, each of them eyeing the other with curiosity, both accepting in the next moment that they were wrong. Even so, his attention had been so effectively captured that he almost cannoned into the back of the waiter, who had come to an abrupt halt at one of the more private booths. A booth that was occupied by a very familiar figure.
Steve's heart did a somersault and lodged in his throat. "Jesse?"
The young man forced a smile, nervous colour flooding his face. "Hi Steve. Glad you could make it."
"I'm surprised to see you here. I thought you said you had other plans." Visions of Jesse being let down by his date skipped through Steve's head. If that was the case...
With a soft laugh, Jesse spread his hands, taking in the whole of the table. "Say 'hello' to my 'other plans'," he announced brightly, as if that explained everything, then his gaze slipped past Steve to the rest of the room and his smile faded. "Sit down, Steve, please."
"Is this some kind of a joke?"
"No. Never. Please, Steve - people are watching..."
He looked around and, sure enough, several pairs of eyes were turned their way. With more reluctance than he ever would have thought possible under these circumstances, he pulled out a chair and sat down. "Okay," he prompted tightly, "You want to explain what's going on?"
"No... But you won't be satisfied till I do, so..." Jesse poured himself a glass of water and took a steadying sip, retaining the glass within the circle of his clenched hands, as if its fragility could form an effective barrier between him and the detective. "For a long time now there's been something I wanted to tell you. This... seemed like the perfect opportunity to get you alone."
"I thought this was meant to be you, me, dad and Amanda."
"That part was Mark's idea. I was worried you wouldn't come if you thought it was just going to be me."
Steve sat back, staring at him, hurt that Jesse could doubt their friendship so much. "Jess, we've had dinner together before."
"Yes - but not like this."
Like this? Okay, so the restaurant was a bit more fancy than those they usually frequented and tonight, of course, it was more crowded than it would usually be. Realisation struck then and he scrubbed a hand over his face as he groaned. Tonight. //Valentine's// night. Lots of people. Romantic dinners for two. //Oh, Jesse...//
Suddenly all the little pieces were tumbling into place and the picture they formed was of a young man as scared and needy and out of his depth where Steve was concerned, as Steve himself felt around Jesse. How had the two of them ever been so blind?
"Dad's not coming, is he?" he asked and Jesse shook his head.
"He's taken Amanda to another restaurant, so I could..."
"Be alone with me?" Steve finished for him when his voice trailed into embarrassed silence.
There was a suspicion of tears in the doctor's eyes as he dipped his head in assent and although his lips were moving, Steve had to strain to hear the words. "I'm sorry... This was a really, really bad idea. Maybe we should just - go."
He looked so sad, so ashamed, that Steve ached to hold him and tell him that everything was going to be all right. Instead, he covered Jesse's clenched hand with his own and smiled encouragement at the young man who, if luck was with them, would become his lover before the night was over.
"Maybe we should go..." he agreed, and felt Jesse's hand flinch, and so he added softly "... back to my place, where we can be... honest with each other. I think we're long overdue for that, love."
The unexpected endearment lifted Jesse's head, a hundred questions widening the pale eyes as they fixed on Steve's face in amazement - questions which Steve answered by the simple expediency of lifting Jesse's hand to his lips and kissing the curled fingers.
"Steve - "
"Shhh... Wait till we get out of here."
"What about dinner?"
"I'll fix us something while we - talk."
Without relinquishing his hold on Jesse's hand, Steve stood up. Jesse, however, remained seated, apparently unable to comprehend what was happening.
"Jess, it's okay," he encouraged. "Trust me." It was exactly the right thing to say at that moment and after that it took no more than gentle pressure to bring Jesse to his feet and close to Steve's side.
As they made their way between the tables, Steve noticed that several of the other diners were still watching them, mostly with approval. Encouraged by their reaction, he took a firmer hold of Jesse's hand, lacing their fingers together and making no attempt to hide it. Let them think what they wanted, Steve was past caring. Jesse was his - Jesse was //his// - and nothng else was of any consequence.
"Mr Sloan, is something wrong?" The head waiter was no doubt horrified to see one of his customers leaving before even placing an order.
"No, no... Everything is fine. We just..." he glanced fondly at the man beside him "... realised we should be somewhere else tonight. I'm sure someone can make use of the table."
"Somewhere else?" Jesse asked as they waited for his car. "Where did you have in mind?"
The broad shoulders lifted and fell and an innocent smile tweaked at Steve's lips. "That depends."
"How fast you want us to go with this and - how far."
The look of hope that spread over Jesse's face stole Steve's breath away. If they had the power to bottle that look it could quite easily end the woes of all the world.
The car arrived and they climbed quickly in, Jesse wasting no time in heading for the beach and the house that Steve shared with his father. Steve skewed sideways in the passenger seat and lay his arm along the back, his fingertips resting lightly on the back of Jesse's neck, maintaining a fragile contact all the way home.
Watching Jesse drive was an experience in itself, the depth of concentration that sculpted his face with light and shade, the skilful way he handled the wheel, the dance of muscles beneath the black fabric of his pants as he worked the pedals. Like everything he did, Jesse threw himself into the act of driving with an intensity that bordered on frightening. There were never any half measures with Jesse, it was always all or nothing.
With that thought, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. "It was you, wasn't it."
"The roses, the balloons on my car, the champagne... Even that damn bear." He thought about the toy still locked in the trunk of his car. He would have to retrieve it and give it pride of place now.
"I thought the bear was cute," Jesse remarked.
"It is. I just - never made the connection. Some detective, huh?"
An even greater wave of panic ran through him as he remembered how, feeling thoroughly depressed when he arrived home that evening, he had tossed the roses - Jesse's roses - into the trash. Jesse would kill him when he found out.
The man in question coaxed the car around a right turn that would take them down to the beach. Leaving the evening traffic behind, he eased back on the gas and allowed their speed to drop until they were cruising the empty road with only the stars for company.
"Most of that stuff was Mark's idea, with a little help from Amanda," he confessed quietly. "Except for the bear. That was me."
"So, I'm guessing from that they know about your - feelings."
"Mark does. I needed someone to talk to and it was either him or a shrink. He loves you, Steve, so I knew whatever advice he gave me would be the truth."
Steve allowed his fingers the luxury of sifting into the soft hair and gently twining in the silky strands. "You could have talked to me," he reminded him, but Jesse only laughed.
"You mean, do the whole //'Hey Steve, I've got this friend who's in love with his best friend and doesn't know what to do about it' // thing? Somehow I don't think that would have gone down too well."
Listening to him now, to the raw misery in his voice, Steve could only begin to imagine how alone Jesse must have felt all these months, carrying what he thought was a terrible secret and having nobody to trust with it except the father of the man he was in love with.
"So - are you?" He held his breath as he waited for an answer.
"Am I what?" Jesse asked, missing the subtext.
"In love with me." Still waiting... waiting...
"Yes," came the hesitant reply, then he turned to Steve, his whole face alight with the joy of finally being able to admit it out loud, and he took his hand from the wheel and cupped it against Steve's face. "Yes, Steve, I'm in love with you."
Overwhelmed by the admission, Steve closed his eyes and turned his head until he could press his lips against the smooth skin of Jesse's wrist. Everything he had wanted was suddenly right here beside him and all he had to do was reach out and claim it.
"Pull over," he demanded urgently.
"What?" The car slewed a little as Jesse snatched back his hand and grabbed the wheel again.
"Pull over Jess."
"But the house is just --"
"I don't care! Please, Jess..."
Reach out and claim it: the car had hardly come to a halt at the side of the road before he did just that, reaching for Jesse, drawing him into his arms. Soft, sweet-smelling hair tickled his face and he inhaled its scent, imprinting it on his memory.
"I love you, baby," he breathed against a hidden ear, felt Jesse's arms tighten around him. "God, I love you so much..."
Pulling back a little, he brushed his lips across the smooth forehead, moved down to touch each eyelid, the tip of the cute nose; pulled back again to judge the effect - was this what Jesse really wanted? - laughing in delight at the look of utter rapture on the upturned face. Oh yes, this was exactly what Jesse wanted.
"Ah Jess..." he sighed as he bent to cover the smiling lips with his own. A surprised gasp - had Jesse not expected to be kissed? - opened them and Steve slipped his tongue inside, pressing his lover back against the seat as he deepened the kiss. Their first kiss. //First of many//. A purr of contentment vibrated in his throat: tonight would be a night of many firsts.
When the need for air surpassed all else, Steve kissed them apart, his free hand dropping to lay against Jesse's chest, where he could feel the frantic beating of his heart.
Slowly, languidly, Jesse opened his eyes and looked up at Steve. "You've got no idea how long I've wanted you to do that."
"Don't bet on it," Steve told him sagely, the effect spoilt by the grin that split his face. "But - is that all you want me to do?"
"God no!" came the instant response. His hand found Steve's face again, thumb stroking across his lips until they parted to allow it entry. "I want it all, Steve. Everything."
Steve nipped the wet digit before letting it slip from his mouth. "Then tell me why we're sitting here, at the side of the road, when we could be at home... in my bed."
Jesse laughed - "I was asking myself the same thing" - and reached to turn the ignition key. "Ready?"
"I think I've been ready since the day we met," Steve admitted ruefully, "but yeah, I'm ready. Let's go home, love."