merlin is shifty - julesoh

wistful_fever


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Fic: Three Steps Away (CSI, Nick/Greg)
merlin is shifty - julesoh
wistful_fever
Three Steps Away
by Fabella (wistful_fever)
PG-13, CSI, Nick/Greg, Spoilers for Grave Danger.
Complete, 6,194 words.
Nick learns about three different types of scars.

Notes
Originally written for the scars challenge over at ngchallenge, but I let it sit around for a while, because I kind of hated it. Now, I’m fairly fond of it, so I’ve decided to post it, despite its absurd lateness. The title comes from the general fannish idea that any character is three steps away from a change (a scar is a permanent change).


Three Steps Away 1/1, by Fabella
*

1. The Day Before
A bare rocky place on a mountainside or other steep slope

Two weeks ago, they decided not to see each other anymore.

No, no, it didn’t happen like that. That was too neat by far, and besides, they would see each other. Every day, they would see each other: in the halls, when their cases overlapped, when the lab got impossibly backed up and Grissom made Greg lend a hand. When Nick banged on Greg’s door at two a.m., a little disorderly, and a lot more drunk. They just decided—Greg decided—he didn’t want to fuck anymore.

“Screw you,” Greg had said, just as Nick asked, “Are we still friends?”

Nick was out in the light now, under the direct burn of it as he forced his body to fight the drag of gravity, foot by foot. Above, a tree branch jutted from the face of the mountain, grass clinging to its mangled roots, and a wispy cloud sat at the top, just crawling over the edge. Sweat dripped in Nick’s eyes, and he blinked it away.

Catherine had asked, “Have anything planned for tomorrow?”

“I’m climbing a mountain.”

And she had laughed, like he’d been joking, until she saw the flaking scabs on his knuckles as he reached for an evidence bag; the band-aids on his fingertips.

“Put on your gloves,” she’d said.

He didn’t wear gloves when he was climbing, because the point was to feel the grit against his skin, get it under his fingernails so he’d have to spend a good ten minutes cleaning them later, when he couldn’t sleep. Small things that kept him busy.

Greg’s parting shot, when Nick finally exhausted all of his excuses, Greg’s farewell words to their kinda, maybe, almost affair when Nick asked him what he was supposed to do with all this space Greg would leave behind: Get a hobby.

Nick got three.

Greg took up a lot of space.

Sweat plastered his shirt to his back as Nick strained for the next handhold, lost in the pull of muscles, the arm over arm, the one foot after the other. Dirt caked the creases around his eyes, the inside of his nostrils, and he huffed, snorting it out. It required sheer concentration to scale a mountainside, absolute focus. He couldn’t think about Greg’s morning coffee in his Spongebob Squarepants boxers, or the eye contact weighted with promise as they passed each other in the hall.

“Ungh,” he grunted, gaining another foot.

The veins in his arms stood out, raised blue mountains on a map of tanned skin, and he definitely couldn’t think about the way their eye contact was weighted with different things now, things that slipped away as abruptly as Greg had. If he was to think about it, he would think about how the only time he saw Greg’s boxers now was when Greg bent at the waist when Nick happened to be passing, and that had only happened once. One bare fucking time, and Nick had stuck his fingers in his belt loops so he wouldn’t reach out to touch, moved silently by. If he could think, he would think Greg hated him.

“Come on,” Nick gritted, to the muscles in his arms. “Don’t quit on me.”

When Nick focused only on the rock under his hand, it was almost like the climb would never end, the mountain scaling into forever as Nick continued to inch, ant-like, up its side. He could just keep pulling himself up, getting further and further away from the ground, where his parents always commended him for having his feet so well planted. The place they were planted now was precarious at best, an eroded notch in the mountain’s scarred face, barely deep enough for the toe of his shoe to fit.

Nick grimaced, sweat dripping from his hair, and reached one hand up, grasping the hot protruding rock above him. Levering his body slowly, he took another two feet. There he allowed himself a twenty second rest, pure blue sky at his back, the bite of Nevada sun on his shoulders. He trusted the rope with most of his weight, and hung there, suspended, nails caked with dirt, and felt not at all like his parent’s son.

He chanced a look over his shoulder and saw nothing but sky. He swung his head around quickly and swallowed the dizzy sickness that came from the disorienting feeling that he was seeing the world from the wrong angle, like he should be looking up instead of out, and his foot slipped a little before he caught himself. Stones crumbled away under him, rebounding off the mountainside, falling away. Nick laughed with the little bit of air left in his lungs, grinning with his face against his arm. His parents wouldn’t have recognized him as he was, throwing it all to chance and some flimsy rope. He was filthy with sweat, reddened by sunburn, wearing hopelessly torn clothes, and he was, face it, gay. Because climbing a mountain was as exhilarating as that first sweet slide into Greg’s ass had been, that delicious shift of Greg’s shoulder blades under his hands.

Greg would know me like this, Nick thought. Greg would like this me. But Greg had said, “No second chances, I can’t take it,” and he had meant it.

And Nick couldn’t even hate Greg for walking out, because Nick had never walked in, and he’d seen the way sneaking around, biting the lip of their relationship to keep it from talking made Greg miserable, and tired, and so suddenly, gone.

Twenty seconds, time to move.

At the top of the mountain, Nick pulled himself up with his last bit of strength and tossed himself over the edge like a bag of processed meat, uncaring that he landed with a sharp rock under his hip, or that he had re-opened the scabs on one fist. His cheekbone squashed a handful of grass, his breath pushing up dirt in clouds, and he let his eyes fall shut as the sun beat down on the back of his shirt. Close, an insect buzzed, flapping its wings noisily in Nick’s ear. Nick didn’t bother to swat at it, breaths growing even, heart rate slowing, and eventually the insect hummed away. After it was gone, Nick blinked open his eyes.

He saw the sky.

Cautiously, he got to his feet, body encased in aching. He hit his palms together, dusting the dirt from the dry cracks, then put them on his hips, chest expanding as he took a huge drought of air. Out there, one foot beyond where Nick’s shoes faced the sheer drop, the desert spread out its long back, shoulders rocky and rigid. He stood there for a long time, so long the sun had shifted in the sky since he’d last moved.

It wasn’t climbing the mountain that was the hard part.

What sucked was the coming down.


2. The Night Before
A lingering sign of damage or injury, either mental or physical: nightmares, anxiety, and other enduring scars of wartime experiences

Nick wasn’t a dreamer. If he dreamed, when he woke up, he could never remember what the dreams were about. So nightmares weren’t the problem. Sleeping was.

Changing over to the swing shift had ruined his sleeping habits once and for all, messed them up worse than they already were. Having to sleep at night, when normal people did, wasn’t as easy as those mattress infomercials made it look. At first, he’d been determined to prove he could do it, sleep by choice, be normal. Mind over matter, his father would advise, but his mind was the *problem*, so what then? Determination hadn’t made much of a difference in this case, and after a while, he’d quit trying. At two in the morning, when he was still riding high from the day’s case, he’d sit up in bed with a bowl of cereal and surf through the channels.

Three months after the shift change, and here Nick was again. Propped against his pillows with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles in his lap, exercising his trigger reflexes with the remote control.

Skinimax was always mildly interesting. The girls never actually appeared to be giving the guys real blowjobs, at least not any kind Nick would want, because wow, that head was swiveling faster than a carnival ride a full three feet away from the guy’s body, and that just wasn’t natural. Nick winced when the blonde gave a particularly brutal lunge with her head, and the guy grimaced in something that was either lust or pain.

Nick had his money on pain.

For himself, he liked close and slow best, feeling Greg’s breath gust across the hair on his thighs, the gentle press of Greg’s finger pads over the straining bones in his hands. Greg saying, “It’s okay, you can hold on.”

A blow job from another man during the middle of the day, when the sun was shining brightly through his curtains, glancing off the framed photographs of his family that covered the wooden surfaces in his bedroom. Greg had introduced Nick to himself, shown him what it could be like. And then, right in the middle of one of those sweet blow jobs, Greg had suddenly stopped, pulled away, starting up that old argument that they’d been having for the last four months of their year long relationship.

“What? You want me to flounce out of the closet in a rainbow jumpsuit?”

“I don’t know, maybe? Fuck, Nick, I’m just tired of being your back alley affair.”

“Come on. That’s, that’s not even close to...”

“No, really. I mean, maybe we should just forget about taking our clothes off, that way it doesn’t take so long to fuck. And you can leave me some money on the pillow, so I can, like, get myself pretty. Or hey. Maybe we should just stop.”

“Jesus Christ, Greg! You really want to fight about this right now?”

“I hate this, man. I hate it, and I hate---”

You.

Nick set the empty cereal bowl on his bedside table, next to his gun holster, and his CSI badge. His feelings for Greg, well, they weren’t going anywhere. No reason to get his mind all twisted up over it again. He glanced at the clock with his arm still outstretched, saw that it was edging toward three already, and forced himself to lay down on his side, facing the photograph of his parents.

“You sound lonely, honey,” his mother had said to him on the phone.

Yeah. But he still had his family. Next month, maybe he’d visit them, and this time he wouldn’t even feel guilty the whole week for not calling Greg, or for adopting the kind of unhealthy lifestyle his father was still trying to drive out of Texas.

A shiver went through him.

Nick tucked the comforter tight around his shoulder, shoving a hand under his pillow and shutting his eyes. There was a cold spot at his spine, and through his eyelids, Nick could feel the burn of his father’s disapproving stare from last year’s family photograph.

3. The After
A lasting emotional injury

Hey. Hey, Pancho. Wake up.

What?

“What?” Nick croaked. He rolled his head as much as the cramped muscles would allow and opened his eyes. Dark. The room was dark, and he, he was underground, and there was no one. Just him, and Jesus, Oh My God, save me, protect me, I’m sorry, so sorry, why is this happening, please, someone, it hurts, it...

There was a shadow above him, outlined in yellow light. Nick winced, and for a blinding moment, all he could see was that line of light expanding, filling the whole room. Nick stayed tense and rigid, his whole body motionless with pain and fear, staring at the faceless figure hovering at his side.

“It’s okay,” a familiar female voice said from the light. “Don’t be afraid.”

The light narrowed and gentled at the words. Nick blinked, eyelashes knotting together stickily. It took all his energy to peel them apart so he could peer at the blurry figure above him. He made out familiar soft eyes and a cloud of soft blonde hair that he knew would smell of vanilla perfume. Her face was creased with pain and worry, the usual make-up absent, and her long feminine arm was extended to the lamp on the table beside his bed, shaking from shoulder to wrist.

“Mom,” Nick tried to say, but his throat ached, and his tongue was in the way.

“Don’t talk,” she murmured, shifting to sit by his hip. “You’re safe. Oh, it’s okay baby. I promise you, you’re safe.”

Her fingertips touched the spot over his heart. The point of contact, near a sharp bruise, threw him backwards inside his head, behind his eyes, where it was dark and quiet and there was room to breathe. From deep inside that safe place, he heard a song from his childhood, and leaned his ear against the dark wall, listening.

*

Nick drifted in and out for two days. The nurse told him so, but Nick remembered only snatches of time, impressions grabbed from the corner of his eye. He might have talked to someone at one point, but he didn’t know who, or what he had said. Nick slept and slept, and when he finally came awake for good, he still felt tired, like powerful hands were forcing his arms and legs to the bed.

That afternoon, with the sun pushing through the blinds, Nick sat all the way up in bed, watching television with the sound off. He couldn’t read lips, and he could easily turn up the volume, but instead, he sat with the blankets tucked around his waist, and made up the lines the black and white characters might say.

The man with the fedora grabbed the wild woman hard by the shoulders, shaking her, making her teeth snap together. Her hair flew out behind her as her head flopped to the side, and his mouth pressed close to her ear.

“Don’t leave me,” he pleaded. “You’re breaking my heart!”

“It would never work!” she cried, hair slapping her cheeks. “I can’t live like this!”

“I can’t live without you,” Nick said, in his own hoarse voice, just as the door to his room was pushed open, and Grissom came in. He was wearing a rumpled button-up shirt without a tie, slacks that appeared to have been slept in, and an arched eyebrow. Nick quickly shut the television off and flipped the remote face down by his leg, flushing under his many sores.

“You’ve learned to read lips?”

Nick shook his head, and gestured to the thin box tucked under Grissom’s arm.

“That for me? I could do with food that has flavor. Everything they say about hospital food is not an urban legend.”

Grissom looked bewildered for an instant, as if he had no idea what Nick was talking about, and Nick noticed the dark circles under his eyes. And then a light came on behind Grissom’s tired gaze, and he plucked the box from his side, holding it out for Nick to see. Nick squinted, but his vision was still a little hazy, and he couldn’t make out the writing.

“Chocolate covered ants.” Grissom turned the small box over in his hands, light reflecting off the cellophane wrapper. He was smiling faintly. “I opened the box already, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Chocolate covered ants?”

Grissom’s sense of humor was showing, Nick thought.

“Revenge,” Grissom said in a perfectly level voice. “That wild kind of justice.”

“Okay,” Nick said, levelly, as Grissom sat the half-full box of candy near one of the bouquets. Spotting them, Grissom dipped his head to smell the petals, and sighed his pleasure as a fine wistful expression loosened his face. When he pulled a chair over beside Nick’s bed, and sat down, Nick picked at his blanket, not meeting Grissom’s eyes. “They’re letting me out tomorrow.”

“You’re lucky, then,” Grissom said. “I overheard the nurses talking about what a wonderful patient you’ve been. I think they want to keep you as a pet.”

“Or a mascot,” Nick mumbled, waving vaguely at his spotted face.

Grissom chuckled. “How are you feeling?”

Nick smiled wanly, letting his head fall against the pillow, which crinkled loudly under the weight, as if it was filled with crumpled newspapers. Normally, Nick would have found it difficult to sleep on, but even insomnia didn’t have a chance against severe physical trauma. One minute, Nick would feel wide awake, the next he’d nod off and not wake up for hours. It felt like losing time, when he had so much left to do.

“I have puss oozing out of every part of my body,” Nick said, raising one arm to show Grissom the welts on his skin. “Whenever my thighs rub together, I rip open a scab.”

“Nick,” Grissom said quietly, and he wasn’t smiling anymore

Nick dropped his gaze, swivelling his head to the side. Grissom had always known too much about him, like a favorite uncle with weird telepathic powers that when invited over for the holidays, peered inside everyone’s head. Nick preferred not to see that knowledge—too much, too soon—watching the flowers wilting slowly in their vases. A bunch of sunflowers stood on the floor, their bright faces curling down, limbs drooping pitifully. Sometimes he would fall asleep staring at them, wondering what it was about dead plants that people found so comforting.

When Nick raised his eyes, Grissom was sitting closer than before, a fatherly concern bending his back with age Nick didn’t often see on him. He put his hand on the bed, close to Nick’s arm, I’m not going anywhere.

“My head’s kinda messed up right now.” The rough voice that came out of him sounded so much like the ones he’d heard in hundreds of police statements that at first, he was positive it didn’t belong to him. Sandpapery, “I don’t want to think about it.”

“That’s fair.” Grissom leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. “The department will make you undergo a psychological evaluation before you can resume your duties, but we’ll talk about the details some other time. Your parents?”

Miserable, scared, wanted Nick to reconsider his career options.

“They’re at the hotel,” Nick said, “getting some sleep. The nurse said they were, uh, here the whole time. They’re pretty freaked.”

“They love you very much.” Grissom paused obviously, thought-lines tightening visibly at his temples as he considered whether or not to continue. Nick’s legs shifted together nervously under the blanket, and he winced when another sore opened, a crisp immediate pain that quickly dulled, diluted by the morphine. After clearing his throat several times and watching Nick squirm from over his glasses, Grissom finally spoke, his voice softer than before. “In fact, I’d say they love you enough to accept every part of you, even the parts they may not like.”

Nick’s heart gave one, plunging roll; a lot like those roller coasters Grissom was so fond of riding. Grissom was wearing that creepy uncle body again, peering inside Nick’s head and finding all Nick’s truths. He’d be killer at cards.

“What?” Nick pushed out, the word barely audible.

“I had to send Greg home last night. He was all over the place. He couldn’t focus on anything.” Grissom cocked his head as if listening to a foreign, high sound. “Strange, isn’t it? He was utterly focused while we searched for you.”

Greg. He hadn’t been by. Nick kept expecting him to walk through the door, hand rubbing the back of his neck, the tips of his hair standing on end as if they wanted to reach out to Nick when Greg’s arms wouldn’t. So much left to do.

Morphine couldn’t dilute that hurt.

Nick’s face crumpled—he could feel himself cringing, his knees wanting to pull toward his stomach, his shoulders curling off the bed. Grissom nodded at Nick’s pained expression, sorry that he’d had to pull this card, but resolute.

“You know, don’t you?” Nick whispered.

“I read lips, Pancho.” Another faint smile. “I’ve read yours. And I know that sometimes you worry so much about letting the people in your life down, that you let yourself down in order to make room for their expectations. You should let Greg listen to that tape.”

“I.” Nick’s throat trembled. “He doesn’t want...”

Nick swallowed, fingertips huddling to his palms.

“As your boss, I’m saying nothing. As your friend, I’m saying you haven’t let me down.” Grissom was suddenly intense, his eyes solid and blazing behind his glasses. “You’ve never let me down, Nicky.”

The world shuddered to a pinpoint of feeling. Nick stared at Grissom, shaken as a sense of profound relief crept through his body, making him tired again. He felt his lungs expand with air as sharp and pure as what could be found at the top of a cliff, and he opened his mouth to speak. Two sharp raps on the door stopped him from coming up with words that could express how he felt in that moment, with Grissom telling him it was okay, he’d done good, he could have what he wanted. Grissom nodded anyway, creepy uncle down to his laces. Nick felt... grateful.

They both turned to face the door when it opened half a second later, and Nick’s mom and dad came in, looking better than the last time he’d seen them, but still older, grayer, more thinly spread over their emotions. His father’s hands were holding Nick’s mother’s shoulders, the thick wedding band he never took off glinting bright gold against his tan skin. His mother’s white blouse actually had wrinkles, and she, like his father, had reddened eyes, as if they’d spent a long time crying.

“Hi,” Nick said, warmly. “I thought you were getting some sleep.”

“We did, for a while,” his father replied, looking to Grissom, who nodded at once and stood, giving Nick a brief, meaningful glance before leaving. Dad shifted to the side and pulled Mom with him, nodding to Grissom as they moved around each other, careful not to make contact: We just think you’ve been away from home long enough. “But you know your mother. When there’s somewhere to go, she wants to go there.”

“Oh hush,” Mom said, slapping the sleeve of his suit jacket. “Your father kept calling the hospital to check up on you. We’d get more sleep here.”

Dad cleared his throat self-consciously, and lead Mom to the seat Grissom had just left behind, smoothing down the arm of her blouse when she sat. Nick looked at the two of them quietly, his heart beginning to throb willfully in his chest. They had been married for close to a million years, it seemed. Was it so wrong that he wanted what they had, but not with a woman? They would think so. They went to Church three times a week, said prayers after they woke up, and before they fell asleep. They were his parents, and he loved them, but he wasn’t getting any younger—Grissom was right.

Or maybe Nick just wanted Grissom to be right. Either way, there was only one way to tell. Open the door, step out.

“I have something to tell you,” Nick said.

He took a deep breath, and began to speak. As he told them, his father grew pale and his arm fell from his wife’s shoulder as he stepped hastily away, his head moving back and forth, no, no. Not my son. His mother stayed where she was, but her fine-boned hand rose to her mouth and pressed there tensely, eyes shining wetly at him over her manicured nails. She made a choking noise. They looked as sick as he felt, and then it was done. The truth was out.

He started to say, “I’m sorry,” but the words didn’t feel right.

Watching them struggle with his secret, Nick felt strangely weightless.

He decided not to apologize.

*

The next morning, as promised, Nick was free to go.

In the bathroom, he creakily changed into sweat pants and a gray t-shirt, struggling to make his limbs bend more than ten degrees. He inspected himself in the mirror only long enough to see that yeah, he was still elephant man, and finished dressing with his gaze on the toilet, seat neatly down. Most of the marks would probably fade, but a few would become permanent scars, and every now and then he’d bump them with his fingertips, take a startled breath, and remember. Remember everything, and he really, really hoped he didn’t have a lot of those scars to run across.

At least he knew Greg wouldn’t mind—Greg had his own scars to deal with.

When he left the bathroom, he saw his doctor had come in and was busy flattering his mother about the color of her dress suit. She was standing gravely in one corner of the room, her face drawn and pale in the sunlight. Her eyes flickered toward Nick, then flitted away, bouncing off the flower painting, the hospital bed, the television, finally landing on the doctor, who had stopped flirting when Nick appeared, straightening perceptibly.

Doctor Simpson shone his megawatt smile in Nick’s direction, and approached with his hand held out, a gesture that Nick ignored. Simpson had dark, bushy eyebrows lightly sprinkled with gray, and white circles around his eyes on an otherwise red-brown face, like he’d been wearing goggles while suntanning. Nick didn’t trust men that suntanned.

He especially didn’t trust men who hit on his mother.

“How’s our patient today?”

Like he would pat Nick on the head, give him a lollipop if he didn’t cry.

“Leaving,” Nick muttered, pulling open a drawer. He heard his mother make a noise in her throat, knew she was swallowing a lecture on polite behavior, and sighed. He’d rather hear the lecture; that would mean she’d forgiven him. Stuffing his change of clothes inside the overnight bag, he gave the unfazed doctor a tight smile. “Sorry. I get snappy after near-death experiences.”

“Naturally. You still look exhausted,” Simpson noted, and lifted the clipboard from the end of the bed, flipping through the pages, mumbling under his breath periodically. “Well, everything here appears to be in order. You’re all clear to go home, as long as you take it easy for the next week or so.”

“Drink plenty of liquids, get plenty of sleep. Got it.”

“Hmm.”

Nick zipped the bag, hefted it cautiously, and found that it was light enough for him to carry. Doctor Simpson was frowning at his mother when Nick lifted his chin, tapping one of those shiny, metal pens against his bottom lip. His mother’s eyes darted between the two men in the room, hands fluttering nervously before settling neatly against her stomach, fingers laced. Doctor Simpson’s face grew worried.

“Mr. Stokes?” Whenever someone called him that , he checked behind him for his dad, but no, it was him being addressed this time. At least, Nick thought so. Doctor Simpson was still looking at Nick’s mother while he spoke, that worried expression intensifying. And then the doctor did look at Nick, and his eyes were sharp and green. “Are your parents going to be staying on in Las Vegas during the process of your recuperation?”

“No,” Nick said tonelessly. “They won’t be staying.”

Simpson nodded, unsurprised, and patted down the front of his coat before, “ah-ha!”, he pulled out a square notepad from the front pocket. He jotted something down on it, then tore off the front sheet, handing it to Nick. Nick glanced briefly at the pain prescription, frowning a little at the high dosage, then folded and tucked the paper in the pocket of his sweat pants, the waistband dragging along a welt.

The wince didn’t go unnoticed by the doctor

“Do you have a friend or family member that could stay with you?”

Nick shook his head. “There’s no one.”

“In that case,” Simpson said, putting the prescription pad away, “I want you to follow my orders exactly, down to the last detail. Next week, after you’ve had your physical, we’ll discuss further treatment. I’ll phone you periodically to check your progress.”

“That’s why God invented Caller I.D.”

Doctor Simpson released a startled bark of laughter.

“I’m beginning to feel you have issues with my bedside manner!” He was still shaking his head as he turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way,” he said, stopping at the door, “the nurse told me that a young man came to visit you, but you were sleeping. He left something for you.”

Nick cupped the strap of the bag against his shoulder, his throat tightening.

“A young man?”

“Yes.” Doctor Simpson opened the door and leaned out into the hall, where he looked in one direction, then the other, and shouted, “Ms. Abigail! Yes, I’m talking to you. Put down that phone, and bring this man his gift. I think he’s earned it.”

Nick heard her mutter something about men being demanding pigs that all deserved to be roasted on a spit over an open fire, and Simpson winked at Nick before he left. The man might have tanned regularly, and his smile might have been annoyingly white, but the back of his doctor’s coat was hopelessly wrinkled, and Nick could like that about him.

“Well,” Mom said. “You certainly have a lot of flowers, don’t you?”

Nick returned her strained smile. Never in his life had he felt unable to talk to her, but he did now, and if it wouldn’t have aggravated the welts on his hands, he would have stuffed them in his pockets and slouched, giving her something to cheerfully nag him about. Instead, he watched her examine her nails, never having moved from her corner in the room, and wished, silently, that he could lay his head on her shoulder, and that she would say she still loved him. As if she heard this thought, her eyes lifted, her lipsticked mouth parting.

“Here ya go, Mr. Stokes,” Ms. Abigail, the nurse, said from the doorway. Nick turned, and she shoved a small basket filled with yellow Peeps and Wrigley’s peppermint gum in his face, foot tapping impatiently as she waited for him to take it.

Nick wrapped his fingers around the wooden handle and the nurse let go, leaving the light weight of it in his hands. It was a small basket, with a simple, unpainted weave. Nothing big or extravagant like the others had brought for him when they visited: the balloons, the flowers, the cards that played classical music. This basket had a small card hanging by a string from the side. Spongebob Squarepants was on its cover, and had lost his pants somewhere along the way. Nick opened the card, staring at the blank, white surface.

No signature, but then, Nick knew who it was from.

Nurse Abigail sighed, put upon. “Guess I’ll help you carry the others out, then.”

“No,” Nick said sharply, clutching the basket tightly.

“Nick,” his mother said gently from her corner. “Those are presents from your friends. It would be rude to leave them behind.”

Nick shot her a look, and her mouth snapped shut. He rubbed his thumb over Spongebob’s face, then glanced around the room, at the balloons bobbing against the ceiling, the clash of potted flowers fighting for the best sunlight, gifts that covered his room with pity and glad you made it and sorry, we didn’t find you sooner. The nurse fidgeted in the doorway, toying with the pencil holding her hair in a bun, and his mother raised her eyebrows, their delicate lines lifting high to the edge of her bangs.

Two measured steps—he’d always avoided the cracks—and he was before his mother, raising the basket between them. She unlocked her fingers, and her eyelashes fanned her cheeks as she examined what he held in his hand with confusion. She reached out, fingertips drifting over the simple weave.

“This is the one I want,” Nick said.

Her head jerked, twitching to the side like she’d been shocked by electricity, hand pulling away to hover over her heart.

“Nicky.”

“This is the one I want, Mom.”

Nick pushed Greg’s gift closer to her face, so that she had to look at. Her nostrils flared, smelling the rich oils in the wood. Only Greg would buy an expensive basket, and fill it with cheap candy, and she had to know that he couldn’t change this about himself, that a silly present from Greg made him want to laugh away his misery. Their eyes met in the space under the handle. Her lip began twitching nervously, a tiny growth of hair at the edge where she’d yet to wax, and she licked there, shutting her eyes with bracing restraint.

Nick waited. Her eyes didn’t open, and his heart sank, but then her arms opened and she fell forward with them outspread like a baby bird trying to fly. She gathered him close with all the strength in her brittle frame, clutching the back of his shirt with tight fists. It was squeezing all Nick’s sore spots, making him feel somewhat like a pressure cooker set too high, so many of his welts being beared upon at once. And he was happy.

“Your father will survive,” she whispered, grasping him painfully. “He’ll... He’ll just have to adjust. Oh, Nick, baby, he loves you so much. You have to know that. But he’s been the way he is for so long. It’s hard for an old man used to getting his way to change.”

The room blurred, and Nick crushed his face tighter against her shoulder, staring through the window behind her. Across the alley, he could see into another part of the hospital, into another room. A woman with wildly frizzing hair sat in a chair, remote control in hand, the side of her blank face bruised as she changed the channel every few seconds.

Trying to forget.

Nick pulled back, brushed his mother’s hair from her wet face.

“Do me a favor?” he said.

*

She parked next to Greg’s building, and put the rental car in neutral, but left it running. Greg’s apartment wasn’t on the nicest side of town. Not because Greg couldn’t afford a better place, but because Greg wanted to live somewhere with character.

Scratching his fingers through the sweaty hair limp on the back of Greg’s head, Nick asks him why he doesn’t trade up. Greg is pliable in his arms, damp skin sticking to his own, peeling apart and reattaching whenever one of them shifts to get more comfortable.

“I like the neighborhood,” Greg slurs, half asleep already. “They’re... The people here. They’re real.”

Nick has trouble sleeping that night, wondering if he’s just one more fake person in Greg’s life.


His mother put her hand over his, lightly grazing the welts there. Her lips curved to one side, in her quirky lopsided smile that looked so good on the front page of the newspaper. She was doing her best, giving it her all. Her son had nearly been murdered, and oh, right, he was gay. Meanwhile, her husband was having a nervous breakdown, and probably drinking again. She was coping admirably, everything considered.

“Would you like help inside?”

“Nah. Thanks anyway, Mom.” Nick saw her wilt in relief, then shoot him a guilty look. He shrugged, flipping his hand to clasp hers warmly. “I’ll be okay. Greg won’t turn me away. He might want to, but he won’t.”

She blushed, and stared hard at the windshield. Her jaw always hardened when she was embarrassed. Right then, she could have taken a hit from Ali, and withstood it.

“I’ll run interference with your father,” she said tautly. “We’ll call.”

“I’ve got nothing but time.”

Nick opened the door and got out, collecting the overnight bag and the basket from Greg at the same time, struggling to balance them both without setting off his mother’s overprotective alarm. He shut the door with his hip, and couldn’t help flinching back, and she was watching, her mouth wobbling.

“Nicky.”

Nick bent, sticking his head through the open window. She unbuckled and shifted closer, kissing him softly on the forehead, before she leaned back, stroking a palm down the side of his face. Her eyes were either watering, or she was crying. Nick had only seen her cry once before in his life, that miserable time, after his babysitter had molested him.

“I love you,” she said, her voice breaking.

“You too,” Nick whispered, and slowly pulled back, until he was standing on the curb. The roof cut off the view of her face, but her hands were trembling as she buckled herself back in, and took the car out of neutral. She was stronger than he’d known.

Nick waved until he couldn’t see her car anymore, and then turned, looking up at Greg’s window. The black curtains were pulled together, shutting out the sunlight, which meant Greg had worked last night, and he was sleeping. Nick could have chosen a better time to throw himself at Greg’s mercy. When Greg didn’t get six hours of uninterrupted sleep, he didn’t know mercy existed. Nick would have to take what he could get.

Two minutes later, he knocked on Greg’s door three firm times, and waited. Then again. After a long pause, when he was about to knock again, he heard shuffling from inside, then a muttered obscenity. The door was jerked open grumpily, and Greg stood there in his Spongebob Squarepants boxers, hair sticking up everywhere. He squinted at Nick, not at all happy to see him even now, with Nick fresh out of the hospital.

Was this love?

“Yeah?” Greg said. His body blocked the doorway, smelling like sleep and sweat and several days without showers.

Nick leaned against the doorjamb and grinned like a sap.

“Come on, Greg, lemme in. I feel like shit.”

*
The End


End Notes
This will probably be my one and only Nick/Greg fic. I think. Maybe. I'm generally not fannishly inclined with CSI.

Please let me know about any typos, missing-words. My sister will only edit my grammar so much before she shakes her head and wanders away.

Feedback gives me the good kind of shivers. Just so you know.

I like that you didn't make the ending some sort of super-mushy, super-hokey, Greg-and-Nick-reunite gooberfest, and I love your Nick. Very real, and very well-done.

Very nice. I like it a lot. :) Yay.

I'm a lover of vaguely untied endings. I'm glad you are as well. :D

This was really well written and I hope you decide to continue as I think you really captured Nick and it would be a shame not to write more.

OMG. Wow. Holy freakin' Toledo... the emotion! ::gasps::

That was incredible! So very powerful... an earth-shattering touch upon my heart. And not even in an "Oh, poor Nicky!" way, because he's not poor -- he's strong. Hurting but holding together, taking the steps he must to make his life good again. I just feel so proud I wanna smother him with hugs!

It'd be a shame if you never write another N/G-fic, but this was good enough I'll be content and glad to have just discovered it while absently perusing pheral's Flist. The quality, the depth of this piece alone, will surely sustain me for the rest of the day. Thank you so much for giving it to the world.

P.S. Grissom as the creepy psychic uncle? Best analogy EVER! XD

Wow. For a story I wasn't that fond of at first... well, just thank you. I appreciate the thoughtful feedback.

Oh, if you don't write another Nick/Greg fic, you'll have left your mark anyway. Though, I'd love (and I'm sure others would too) if you stayed on in the CSI community. For someone not fannishly inclined, you write a beautiful Nick and Greg.

This story is absolutly lovely-- It's gritty, it's not at all mushy, and it's exactly what I've been hopeing for in the Greg/Nick fandom. Lately, there have been too many sweet/happy/mushy stories written (me definetly included), and there's nothing wrong with that but my first love has always been angst (though I haven't written it yet to my own satisfaction) and I haven't read nearly enough lately. I've been wanting a fic like this so bad I started writing one myself (no worries though, it's rather different from yours-- though close enough to be sort of creepy as I started writing it yesterday morning).

But this! This is absolutly wonderful! Mind if I friend you? I'd like to see what else you've written...

XOX

I'll probably give in and write another one down the line somewhere. Nick/Greg is just so very... tempting. But it's nice to know that this one will be appreciated by someone, whether or not I do. :D

Thank you so much, and continue on with your fic.

You mention gritty, and I get weak in the knees.

This was just wonderful! I enjoyed it so much, I really didn't want it to end. I do hope you decide to continue writing in this fandom, you have a real talent. (And we need to find out if Greg lets Nick in!)

Oh, he absolutely does, you can be sure of that.

I put some foreshadowing in, just in case someone wanted to know:

“I’ll be okay. Greg won’t turn me away. He might want to, but he won’t.”

Our Greg has a soft spot for Nick. :D

Thanks for the feedback!


You combined two of my favorite things, Nick and rock climbing, I think you are my new hero.

Great story, thanks for sharing.

I wish I could say it was a strike of brillance, but---only the dictionary, I'm afraid. :D Thanks for the feedback.

What a great look into Nick's mind. Live and learn, I like that. Good to read a story about men and not boys. And really loved the way you ended it.
When Greg didn’t get six hours of uninterrupted sleep, he didn’t know mercy existed. Heh. Grumpy Greg.

Heh. Grumpy Greg.

I love Grumpy Greg best for some reason. The episode where he kept telling Nick off for invading his space made me giggle shamelessly.

I really enjoyed this story, the emotion...There are no words. NOt to mention your Nick was one of the best I have ever read. For someone who's not 'fannishly inclined' with CSI you've done a brilliant job. I hope this isn't your last Nick/Greg story because you have captured them very well.

It probably won't be my last, knowing my habit of fixating, but probably my last for a while. I tend to fandom-hop. I find too many characters tempting. Thank you VERY much for the feedback.

I'm a bit confused as to why you didn't originally like this, as you've captured the characters admirably and have a wonderful writing style.

Hee! Thanks. I didn't like it as first, because my Grissom felt... off. In the end, I just decided that he was allowed to help Nick's love life out, but not bluntly, and only in passing---his "you've never let me down" --- about anything.


i think that was a lovely fic, some of the imagery was nice and crisp ^_^ I found Nick's mum and Grissom a bit OOC for me but that's the nice thing about everyone have a POV about the characters LOL

You know, I thought Grissom was a bit OOC myself, actually---mostly that he wanted to help with Nick's love life. In the end, I decided to let him, but only a little. And only by appealing to Nick's insecurities. I don't know much about his Mom, only what I saw in Grave Danger, so you could definitely be right. Thanks for the feedback!

This is a beautiful piece of writing. Definitely sticking it into my memories. (;

I loved it. Wasn't too mushy, and just enough to get me through till I read another fic!

ctx :D

You write like someone who has, at some point in their life, stepped in a fire ant nest. The realism of just how painful/itchy/uncomfortable/gross that many bites would be, is always my make-or-break criteria on post-GD fic, and this definitely made it. Thanks for sharing!

Never been bitten by an ant, but just the IDEA of it... ::shivers::. I'm glad the story struck a real note with you.

This is fantastic! I was so glad to see you'd written a CSI fic, and it took me so long to find the time to read it i was being driven mad. You write so excellently, and the fic leaves me with such a warm fuzy feeling because i know that Nick did the right thing and that things will be different from that point onwards. LOVE it!

Oh, and i am wondering, where did you get your information on what Nick said on the tape recording? Because everyone around me is saying they think what you think, that he said something about letting Gris down, but when lipreading it i was fairly convinced he said "i dont think i ever told you how much i admire you".

Oh, but I love you, dear, dear woman. And Nick---I had a hard time writing him actually. He's such a mixture of weak and strong, insecurity and pride... He cried in the episode, but I couldn't---in my story, at that point, I don't think it's quite hit him yet---there's just a suggestion of what he might face, when he thinks about it, and that's why only the suggestion of tears.

As to what Nick said, I'm not exactly sure, but they might not have actually shown every word he was saying into the tape. I was more responding to what Grissom had to say, because whatever Nick DID say, it obviously made Grissom feel Nick needed that assurance. Does that help? I'm sure it doesn't, I've been awake too long. :D

It was really good and now I'm sad that there isn't going to be a follow up fic - I was really looking froward to all that make up sex:D

Hee! But then, Nick would still be all scabby and sore! They'll have to wait a little while, build up the sexual tension. BTW? Your icon kills me.

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