Inspired by Kerry and Robbin's: It Started With A Splinter

skul/dug/ger/y (n.): Crafty deception or trickery or an instance of it.

Steve Sloan watched the taught surfer from where he stood on the warm sand, shamefully unable to tear his eyes from the figure. He knew it wasn't right, staring at his best friend like a awe-struck young woman, but there was something' magical in the way the water transformed Jesse Travis.

The young ER doctor was by no means incompetent, as the truth couldn't be more the opposite. Jesse was a lightening-fast doctor with instincts that were always honest and correct. He was now a prize of the Community General Hospital, whose board members all managed to see through the youth and inexperience and thereby give the twenty-something doctor a chance upon his arrival to California. Steve hadn't known Jesse back then. He had only heard of the Illinois-bred doctor through his father, Dr. Mark Sloan, while father and son would discuss the day's events over the dinner table. Right from the beginning, Steve could tell that his father was impressed by Jesse, and as time brought them all closer, began to see Jesse as a wayward son.

Maybe it was the closeness of their relationship that peeled away any formality Jesse might usually display, but Steve himself began to see the young doctor as a kid brother, the kind you never really appreciated until you were old enough to see that, yes, the annoying little guy really does worship the ground you walk on. The detective often saw Jesse in all his goofy glory, his free-spirited enthusiasm. While 'clumsy' might not be a precise description, 'controlled' wasn't either.

That was what had Detective Steve Sloan standing at the water's edge now, transfixed on the single man he was closest to after his father. The instant Jesse's foot touched the water, he was transformed, always finding his balance and movingly fluidly like an extension of the sea, like She wanted the light-haired surfer upon Her. Surely fate was mistaken when birthing Jesse in the Midwest, because he clearly belonged to the sea.

Steve shivered against a salty breeze and broke out of his inadvertent musings. His own surfboard caught the wind and fought against his grip. After taking a deep breath, Steve started out into the ocean to join his friend. They were each unwinding after a taxing workday; Steve running between the precinct and the streets, Jesse running from the emergency room to surgery. There was no better way to relax than riding the waves against a blinding orange sunset.

Steve clawed through the water and into the sinking sun. His dad was in the beach house at his back, making a dinner that would fill bellies a well as spirits. To his left, Jesse crouched and clung to his surfboard as if his feet were more comfortable there than on land. Steve shook his head and continued searching for his wave.

He didn't know what made him turn then, perhaps it was an upsetting flash of blue and white trunks (because wetsuits weren't very flattering), or perhaps it was a cry from the ocean Herself. Steve looked backwards over his shoulder just in time to see Jesse plunge into the waters below. Jesse had fallen lots of times, maybe on purpose just to let the ocean catch him, but there was something different, worrisome, about this plummet. This time the waves continued to pound, continued to keep their rider under.

'Jesse?' Steve called out, already making his way to where he had last seen the younger man.

'Jesse!' This time it was more frantic. It wasn't like the ocean to keep Jesse under, and it wasn't like Jesse to stay anywhere he was put.

Just as Steve reached his destination, Jesse's head broke the water's surface about twenty feet away, followed closely by his board. The waves seemed to quiet in an apology as Steve fell into the water and swam to his friend.

'Are you alright?' Steve asked as soon as he was sure he could be heard over the hissing waves.

Jesse nodded, rubbing his eyes. 'Yeah. I banged my knee a little, but I'm all right. I don't know what happened.'

'Looked to me as if you fell, doctor,' Steve grinned, grabbing Jesse's shoulder for both their reassurances. 'Let's call it a night. Dinner should be ready anyway.' Steve thought he saw tears escape Jesse's reddened eyes, but that was absurd considering the young man was dripping wet and treading water a couple hundred feet from shore.

'Sounds like a plan,' Jesse nodded. 'I'm starving.'

Steve's arms tightened as he hoisted himself back on the surfboard. 'Why does that not surprise me?' he asked with a grin, watching as Jesse climbed on his surfboard. The movement seemed slower, more guarded. 'Are you sure you're okay?'

Jesse nodded with enthusiasm but the deliberate avoidance was not lost on Steve as the doctor looked straight ahead. 'Yeah, great. Let's go.'

Steve felt a surge of big-brother-ness radiating within him at the way Jesse's jaw was set and his eyebrows furrowed. He silently cursed the ocean for abusing a person that so obviously worshiped Her.

They reached the shore and sunk their feet into the liquid sand. The sky was darkening around them, chasing them to the beach house and stopping just at the edge of electricity's warm glow. Deep purple spilt across the sky now, blotting out the vivid orange that was there only half an hour before. Steve was trudging through the sand when he realized his side was bare and he was alone. He turned to find Jesse leaning against his board, still at the water's edge. Or maybe the board was holding him up.

'You coming?' Steve asked, driving the end of his own board into the yielding sand.

'Yeah. It-' Jesse swallowed and looked to the sky quickly, then pointed. A diversion. 'Sky's pretty.'

'We can look at it from inside.'

Jesse nodded. 'I'm coming,' he said dismissively, but Steve didn't turn away. He watched as Jesse grinned nervously and slowly, tentatively, limped forward.

Steve watched sympathetically as Jesse kept his gaze to the sand in stubborn determination. Perhaps that was the best description of the young man- stubbornly determined. It was the way Jesse seemed to deal with all that life threw at him, at least from Steve's standpoint. He sighed, allowing Jesse to join him under his own effort. 'Do I need to get dad?'

'No.' Jesse replied sharply, his blue eyes finally locked on Steves'. 'I just twisted it. I'll be fine.'

'Jesse, you're using your surfboard as a crutch.'

Jesse blinked and pushed the board away from him a fraction. 'Am not.'

Steve raised an eyebrow. 'Well I'm getting cold. Let's go inside and eat. Think you can make it, hop-along?'

'Right behind you,' Jesse grinned, youth and mischief once again sparkling in his eyes.

Steve shook his head and started for the house, listening to Jesse hobble along behind him and the waves hissing against the sand behind Jesse. He had every intention of having his father examine Jesse once they reached the house. If Jesse had to be baited with food, then so be it. The least he could do for now is help preserve Jesse's pride by letting him reach his destination under his own power. Stubborn, determined' and proud.

They reached the deck stairs in only slightly more time than usual. Steve slowed his pace a little to accommodate for Jesse's struggling. He scaled the wooden steps in normalcy, and then turned to watch how Jesse intended on following. Perhaps he should have stayed behind the younger man to catch him when he fell.

With a sigh of doggedness, Jesse propped his surfboard against the railing and took his first cautious step, clinging to the railing with a force that turned his knuckles white. His own feet fell in place of Steve's wet footsteps as he slowly but surely made his way up to the weathered deck. He stood before Steve, panting as saltwater slowly fell from his hair to his shoulders. 'One word about this to your dad and you'll be pulling Wednesday's shift at Bob's by yourself,' Jesse threatened with a pointing finger.

'Wouldn't dream of it Jess,' Steve replied, opening the sliding glass door for his friend. 'After you.'

Jesse visibly braced himself, then set forth into the house with painstaking steadiness. Mark looked up from his duties in the kitchen and smiled.

'You're just in time, dinner's ready.'

Jesse opened his mouth and Steve smoothly blurted, 'Jesse's hurt himself.' He heard Jesse's jaw click shut as he strode past the stunned young man and grabbed a towel.

'I did not,' Jesse argued, however there was not much strength behind it. He caught the towel Steve threw at him and looked away from the proud smile.

Mark set the casserole dish on the potholders and studied Jesse, then Steve. 'Hurt how?'

'Surfing,' Jesse replied quickly, and Steve knew if Jesse had his way, that would be the end of the conversation.

'Said he twisted his knee,' Steve clarified. He tossed the wet towel aside and pulled on a T-shirt. 'But you know how you doctors always downplay your own injuries?' Steve trailed off, successfully igniting a flame of worry in his father's eyes.

'Sit down, I'll be there in a minute,' Mark ordered as he turned off the oven.

Jesse remained where he was, glaring at Steve as he was handed a dry shirt and relieved of the towel. 'I hate you,' he hissed, keeping a smile in his eyes that Steve easily saw.

'Just looking out for my best friend,' Steve replied, moving away and taking up residence on a bar stool near the breakfast bar.

Jesse hobbled to the couch and eased himself down, keeping his injured right leg straight out in front of him. He glared at Steve from across the living room.

Mark approached Jesse with all the mannerisms of a father having to patch up his son after yet another fall and scraped knee. 'What have you done to yourself?' he chided, and even Steve could sense the true concern.

'As I told Steve already, it's nothing. Maybe a sprain, that's all.'

'Ten minutes ago your knee was just twisted,' Steve interjected.

Jesse looked into Mark's eyes and commented quietly, 'It may be a little more severe than a twist.'

Mark let his fingertips ghost over the joint and stood up. 'Either way, it's swelling. Stay there and I'll get a wrap and Tylenol.' Jesse opened his mouth and Mark added, 'You will have this knee wrapped or you won't get any dinner.'

Jesse's jaw clicked shut for the second time that night. 'Fine, dad,' and Steve wondered how the term of endearment could sound so much like a curse.

Steve chuckled as he picked at a roll. 'He cares about you Jess. A lot of people do.'

Jesse glanced at the hallway which Mark had disappeared in. 'You're lucky.'

'So I've heard.'

Mark reappeared with a roll of Ace bandages and a white pill bottle. 'I'll let you do the honors, young man,' Mark said, tossing the bandages in Jesse's lap. 'I have a dinner to serve.'

Steve watched Jess pout for a minute and wondered how the Travis parents could be anything less than amused in their son's presence. It scared him how deeply he thought of Jesse and therefore tried not to do it too often. Jesse had many layers, and as the young doctor grumpily began wrapping his knee, Steve found himself glad to know Jesse on the most sincere level. There was something about the stubborn, determined, proud, and naive man that complimented Steve and all his straight-forwardness and experience.

A sort of return to innocence.

Steve shook his head vehemently. Since when had he become a waxing poetic' Must be a full moon, he thought, and took his plate to the table to eat.