Disclaimer: Gues what? Don't own 'em!
Thanks to everyone who's reading and supporting Protecting Innocence. The next chapter will be up in the new year.
Warning: this is SLASH! There's nothing explicit, but Steve and Jesse are already in an established relationship.
SEASONS GREETINGS TO YOU ALL!
NO BIG DEAL
It wasn't a big deal. That's what Jesse kept telling himself, no matter how hard his heart tried to tell him otherwise.
It was only a birthday, after all. Just another day of the year – one like so many others – except that this day would see him grow another year older. Just another day – that and the fact it was Christmas Day.
It was hard having a birthday on December 25th. Festivities tended to focus on the seasonal; on gifts and trees and goodwill to all men. It wasn't about one individual – well, not for most people. It was a time of celebration for everyone.
So Jesse grew up hardly noticing his birthdays. Sometimes his mom would buy a special cake – she wasn't the type to bake it herself – and sometimes there would be gifts that weren't wrapped up in paper adorned with snowmen and Santa. But as he grew older even those little touches stopped and Christmas became just Christmas: when he would dutifully buy gifts for the family and try hard not to be jealous that the entire world could spare the time for an infant born millennia ago – and yet not one person could take just a moment for him.
So it wasn't a big deal. It hadn't been for many years – when a sterile home environment had starved him of such sentimentality. It honestly wasn't a big deal.
So why did it feel like such a big deal now?
Maybe it was the strained silence that had suddenly fallen over the dinner table; maybe it was the awkward glances being exchanged by Mark and Amanda; maybe it was the look of utter mortification that currently dominated Steve's features.
Whichever it was, it didn't matter. The party had gone suddenly flat and Jesse glanced downwards, ashamed that he had been the cause. It was no big deal, he told himself yet again – and blinked away bitter tears that had treacherously sprung into his eyes. He fixed a smile on his face and looked back up.
"I, uh… It's no big deal." He spoke his favourite mantra aloud, instantly noting that it had no effect. Instead it only served to add fuel to Amanda's steadily growing wrath.
"Of course it is, Jesse," she snapped – but the anger in her voice wasn't directed at him. "Steve, how could you?"
And Jesse wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. When that failed to occur, he miserably wondered how quickly he could take his leave from the table. But the cake still sat in the centre – its candles fluttering merrily and the light blue icing slowly starting to melt.
He was hurting – hurting more deeply than he would ever admit to anyone, even Steve. Especially Steve, he hastily amended as he thought of the reason for the festivities suddenly coming to a grinding halt. His partner, his lover, his soul-mate had forgotten his birthday. It was so absurd as to be almost laughable – it wasn't the most obscure of dates he had to remember – but any laughter he might have uttered almost choked him and he ruthlessly swallowed the sob he knew would emerge.
Everything had been so perfect. They'd breakfasted and then surfed and then exchanged Christmas gifts before dinner. After the sumptuous feast was done, Mark had presented the spectacular birthday cake and Jesse's world had collapsed into a heap.
The look of horror on Steve's face was too real to be an act. Amanda's indignation and Mark's silent, disappointed shake of his head had just confirmed the worst. Steve had forgotten his birthday.
Jesse felt like a fool for holding this day in such anticipation. The secrecy Steve had recently exhibited – citing the need to find the perfect surprise gift for his father – had been exactly that: a lovingly restored and framed photograph of the late Katherine Sloan – Steve's mother and Mark's still-beloved wife. It was the perfect present and it had not only been Mark who was misty-eyed when he opened it. But now Jesse's eyes were stinging for a different reason.
The perfect present for Mark – yet nothing for his birthday. Not even a card.
"Jess, I'm sorry," Steve spoke into the silence that had, once again, descended. "I…"
"It's okay, Steve." Jesse was quick to interrupt; not wanting to have this conversation – at least not in front of an audience. He fixed a smile onto his face, not caring how fake it felt. He just wanted to escape before the day got any worse. "I actually… I think I should…" He discarded his napkin and half-rose from his seat.
"Jesse." It was Mark's voice that tried to stop him.
"Seriously, Mark, I…" He glanced away from the paternal concern his former mentor directed at him. "I do have an early start tomorrow. It's not like the casualties stop just because it's… Christmas." His voice shook but didn't break and Jesse was immensely proud of that fact. But he still avoided eye contact with any of them as he hastily vacated the table. "Thank you for… Thanks…"
And Jesse fled. The remaining food was ignored – as was the cake, its candles now starting to drip wax onto the previously pristine icing. Even his gifts were left discarded as he sought some escape from a pain that he knew he would carry with him, no matter how far he went.
"I am not going to cry; I am not going to cry; I am not going to cry."
Unconsciously, Jesse spoke the words aloud as he climbed into his car – as though doing so would dissuade his body from betraying him. He blinked rapidly to clear the tears that filled his eyes in spite of his words – and bit down hard on his bottom lip. "What were you expecting anyway, Travis?" he muttered harshly as he gunned the engine. "You told him it wasn't a big deal, so what the hell were you expecting?"
And the answer came to him with startling clarity – and almost caused his crumbling defences to collapse completely. He had been expecting a promise to be kept:
"You know, I don't even know when your birthday is." The memory came back unbidden – and Jesse went with it, no matter how much it hurt him to relive.
"You mean your dad hasn't told you?" He had been genuinely surprised by that.
"Why would he?" Steve sounded perplexed and Jesse wondered if Mark had even noticed it in his file.
"Because…I share my birthday with someone pretty special…" Jesse teased gently – and Steve got hold of totally the wrong end of the stick.
"No way! You mean we have the same birthday? What are the odds?"
"Longer than you'd think," he chuckled in response. "It's not you, you goof. I was born on Christmas Day."
"Wow." Steve took a moment to think about it. "Boy, everyone else getting presents too? I bet that sucks."
And Jesse had laughed because he was with Steve and nothing else mattered – not even the fact that the words he'd said had been true. But he must have given something away because suddenly his lover was looking at him seriously.
"Not any more, Jess," he promised. "From now on your birthdays are gonna be as special as you are. I promise"
Back at the beach house, all pretence of any festivities was gone. Mark had silently extinguished the candles on the cake, their merry twinkling seeming to mock the sombre atmosphere that had now descended.
"Aren't you going after him?" Amanda's voice was low and reproachful.
"To say what?" Steve retorted – horrified by how everything had gone so desperately wrong. "That I'm a jerk? I think he'll have figured that one out already."
"How about to tell him why you forgot his birthday?" Mark asked, his own disappointment evident in his eyes. This was not in his plans for the perfect Christmas.
"But that's just it, dad, I didn't forget." Two pairs of disbelieving eyes suddenly focussed on him and he hurried to explain. "I just kinda… moved it…"
Said aloud, Steve instantly saw exactly where he'd gone wrong. He had been so thorough, so meticulous, so careful. He had wanted everything to be perfect. But he had neglected to tell Jesse that his birthday was going to be very, very different this year. That, in fact, it wasn't even going to fall on the 25th. It might not have been so disastrous had he chosen a date before Christmas – or if he'd even included his dad and Amanda in his elaborate plan – but he'd got totally carried away with an idea, without fully thinking through the consequences. It wasn't the first time he had been guilty of such a thing – and he was fairly certain it wouldn't be the last.
"You can't just 'move' a birthday," Mark said, with a frown.
"You can when you can do it on a technicality." Steve smirked as twin looks of utter bewilderment were directed at him – but then he remembered what that 'technicality' had cost him and he instantly sobered. "I asked Jesse when his birthday was and he told me he was born on Christmas Day."
"Yes, we know that…" Amanda tried to interrupt, but Steve held up one hand to silence her.
"He said Christmas Day," he stressed. "Not December 25th, but only Christmas Day."
"I still don't…" Amanda was shaking her head, still clearly confused, but the light was beginning to come on in Mark's eyes.
"And not everyone celebrates Christmas today," the older Sloan said, as he finally caught on. "You're talking about the Eastern Orthodox Church. Oh, Steve…"
"It was going to be perfect," the detective muttered, staring morosely at the neglected cake. "A day just for him. No other gifts, no-one else to look out for. But it was still Christmas Day – still his birthday."
"Oh honey…" Amanda reached out to cover his hand with her own. He looked so thoroughly miserable. "Couldn't you have told us? Let us help? We could have at least helped you find an excuse as to why his birthday was going to be celebrated late this year."
"So now do you know why he doesn't need me to tell him what a jerk I am?"
"Well, we have to put this right," Mark said, with sudden resolve. "We have to let him know that you didn't just forget."
"How, dad? Anything I do now will seem like an afterthought – and I let him go. I don't think he'll let me talk to him long enough to explain."
"Then whatever plan we make had better be a good one."
After a hasty, but heartfelt, discussion by the three people remaining at the beach house, it was decided their priority had to be to let Jesse know he hadn't been forgotten; that Steve's actions may have been ill thought out, but they had been genuine; that he was loved and cherished to such an extent that Steve had worked tirelessly to prepare his very special surprise.
It was also decided Steve would be highly unlikely to achieve this without some help from the others. As he had so rightly pointed out, he didn't want any action to seem like an afterthought – or an attempt to make amends.
So the three of them crowded into the den, each preparing to play their part as Mark put his telephone on 'speaker' and dialled a very familiar number.
They heard it ring only twice before there was a click and the voice they'd longed to hear resounded around the room. Steve had even opened his mouth to speak before he realised Jesse's voice was way too cheerful – and there was an unnatural quality to it. They were listening to his answer-phone recording.
He listened to the friendly words with a heavy heart. He should have known it wasn't going to be so easy. Then, just as he was about to terminate the call, Mark held up one hand to stop him.
"Jesse, it's Mark," the older man said into the still-open connection. "Now I know you might not feel much like talking right now, but we have something very important to tell you. I don't want to do this so impersonally, Jesse. So, if you're home, will you please pick up?" He was trying to appeal to his young friend's insatiable curiosity and, when that failed to elicit a response, he tried again. "Jess, have you ever done something that seemed to be filled with the best intentions at the time – only for it to go horribly wrong?" He knew he must have – it happened to everybody. "Well, that's what we want to talk to you about. Call us, Jess, just as soon as you can."
And finally Mark hung up. He exchanged glances with both Steve and Amanda, before giving a helpless little shrug.
"We could always try his cell," Amanda suggested – not wanting to leave this hanging any longer than necessary. She didn't want her friends to be suffering so badly at a time of such celebration.
This time it was Steve who lifted the telephone receiver.
Jesse's cellphone was switched off. It was always switched off when he went to his current location – partly in deference to the strict regulations that bound him and partly through respect for the person who shared the room with him.
He wasn't incommunicado. He could be reached by pager in an emergency and he could still hear the muffled sound of the tannoy from the corridor outside. Plus there were the nurses he had passed and had even briefly greeted on his way to the room in which he now sat.
Jesse didn't know what had made him drive straight to the hospital – he only knew that he didn't want to be at home, brooding over what had transpired – but he did know what had brought him into this room.
He had needed something. Something indefinable, but something that might help to heal his wounded soul. He needed to remember what was important in life and he found it in the ICU of Community General in the shape of a tiny little angel called Holly.
The child had been dragged into the world more than a month before her time, when her mother had been severely injured in a car accident. The woman had died even as Jesse, with Mark at his side, fought to preserve the life of her unborn child.
They had saved her – but it looked as though they might have done nothing more than given her a few days on this Earth. She was incredibly small and frail and desperately ill. She hadn't been expected to live to see her first Christmas.
But she defied the odds and even overcame them. In spite of the fact that she was still desperately ill; that she depended on a multitude of machines just to cling on to life; that a tube down her throat assisted her under-developed lungs to keep on working, she was still fighting. Still living. And the word 'hope' had been uttered for the first time since her birth.
Yes, there was now hope she might live – but hope for her future was a different matter entirely. Just one week before Christmas, a sad-eyed policewoman had quietly informed them that the child was now an orphan. Her unmarried mother had been her only traceable relative – and none of the dead woman's family had come forward.
Though totally oblivious to the fact and still hanging tenaciously on to life, Holly was truly all alone in the world.
Jesse looked down into the incubator that would be Holly's home for at least a few weeks to come and gave in to the tears he had been fighting so hard against. He didn't cry for himself; for his missed birthday and aborted Christmas celebration. Everything that had transpired at the beach house paled into insignificance when compared to what this child had to face.
So he wept for her – because there was no-one else who could.
He let his tears cleanse him; to wash away his pain and heartache and make him realise just how petty his own misfortunes were.
So there had been no birthday greeting from Steve. That was the sum of his current misery – and he felt selfishness creep up on the heels of his sadness. Who was he to bemoan his lot in life when, in truth, he actually had so much? He had his family and his friends; his health, his career and his home.
And he had Steve. No matter what the other man might or might not have done, Jesse knew one thing without a doubt: he was loved. And he didn't need gifts or cards or cake to know that. It was in Steve's eyes every time he looked at him; in his voice with every endearment he uttered; in his every action – and from his very heart. He was loved.
"And you will be, too," he whispered to the tiny child, blinking away the last of his tears to focus on her. "I promise you, Holly, you will be loved. I'll find you the best family – someone who will cherish you and keep you safe. And your life is only going to be filled with sunshine from now on."
"That was going to be my surprise – my gift to you."
Jesse's throat felt suddenly tight as he recognised the familiar voice from behind him – though not the thickness of emotion in the tone.
"Steve…" he mumbled eventually, feeling suddenly guilty at how he'd behaved – at having run out on them so abruptly. "How did you know where to find me?"
"You turned your cellphone off." It was hardly conclusive, but Jesse seemed to take it at face value. Steve summoned his courage and took a step further into the room. He allowed his gaze to rove past Jesse and towards the little girl whom he stood over. "She's really got to you, hasn't she?"
There was no censure in his voice – no impending lecture at how he shouldn't get too emotionally involved. There was just real empathy and understanding.
"Yeah." Jesse looked down, once again battling with his emotions. "Yeah, she has."
"I knew that and… I wanted to do something for her… For you… For both of you."
"No, hear me out, Jess." Steve cupped the younger man's face in his hands, making him look up at him. "I tried to do something good – something special – and I screwed up."
"No." Jesse responded with a force that surprised both of them. "No, you didn't. I just…" Guilt crept in again. "I overreacted. I'm sorry."
"Jesse, how can you possibly stand there and say you're sorry?" The detective was utterly incredulous. He'd come here – hoping against hope he would find his lover – with his entire speech rehearsed in his head, only to find himself the recipient of the apology.
"Because I am!" Jesse inadvertently raised his voice and then cast an anguished glance towards the sleeping babe. His next words were spoken on a whisper. "I told you it was never a big deal. I haven't celebrated a birthday in years. And then I came here and I realised that it really isn't a big deal."
"I don't need a card to remind me of what I have." Tears stood bright in Jesse's eyes as he gazed up at the man he loved. "I just need you, Steve. That's all I'll ever need."
Steve's heart was warmed by the words – but there was still one important message that he had to get across: "I didn't forget."
Jesse opened his mouth to protest, again, that it didn't matter – but Steve silenced him by planting a quick kiss on his lips.
"I wanted to do something extra special," he began to explain. "I wanted your birthday to be just for you – but that was never gonna happen on Christmas Day." A faint flush coloured his cheeks as he recalled how rapidly things had gone downhill after that initial idea. "So I got thinking – and I saw on the news how there's this one church that doesn't celebrate Christmas Day with the rest of us. They've got this whole other calendar and their Christmas is January 7th. Well I thought it was perfect. It was Christmas – in a way – but it wasn't our Christmas. Plus it gave me time to do what I needed to do."
He slipped one arm around Jesse's waist and half-turned so that they could both look down at Holly.
"I knew you were hurting for her," he continued in the softest of voices. "I knew you couldn't bear the thought of what was going to happen to her once she left here and…" He trailed off, suddenly embarrassed by the lengths he had gone to for this anonymous child. "She has a home, Jess. She has a family who will love her and care for her."
"How?" Jesse could only utter the single syllable, he was so overcome by what Steve had done.
"I called in a few favours; pulled a few strings." Steve laughed a little self-consciously. "Skipped a few waiting lists…"
"January 7th, Jess." Steve's voice was whisper soft. "I had it all worked out. The couple who are adopting her – Bill and Jenny Franklin – want to have her christened and we chose that date."
"Steve…" Jesse tried to interrupt again, instantly seeing the flaw in his plan – Holly would be nowhere near strong enough by that date.
"It's going to be done right here, Jess." He smiled into his lover's hair. "Just a small, private ceremony – and, sweetheart, they've asked us to be the Godparents."
"They… they know?" Jesse murmured incredulously. He felt Steve shrug as though it was no big deal – but he knew it was.
"They're good people, Jess. And I wanted to be honest because I wanted everything to be perfect – for you." He tightened his hold on the younger man. "Now you can still see Holly and you can be who you are. You won't have to pretend."
By now, Jesse could barely find his voice – and he was feeling like a complete heel for the way that he'd reacted, when it was obvious that Steve had gone to an awful lot of trouble on his behalf. "Thank you," he muttered, thickly.
"So, are you ready to come back to the party?" Steve made an attempt at lightening the mood and was rewarded with a bright and genuine smile.
"I mean it, Steve, thank you." Jesse's words were as from the heart as his smile had been. "And I'm sorry I ran out on you like that." He looked away, embarrassed. "I should have had more faith."
"Hey…" Steve silenced him with a quick kiss. "No more blame, no more guilt and no more apologies. Let's go and see if dad and Amanda have left us any of that cake."
Jesse grinned up at him as they exited the room. His mood had lifted considerably in the light of the monumental thing that his lover had done for him. His natural spirit quickly resurfaced.
"Hey, it could have been worse," he said to Steve's retreating back: "I could've been born on Leap Years Day, or something. One birthday every four years – now that really would suck."
And Steve, throwing caution to the wind – it was Christmas after all – put a possessive arm around his young lover's shoulders as he joined in with his laughter.