OOU 20?

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TWO DAYS LATER - 1:45 P.M.

Laying on his side in the extra bed, Nick stared across the room to where Greg lay. The focus of so much attention for the past week or so was pale and unmoving, fading bruises still vividly coloring his throat. Momentarily, Nick had to close his eyes against the sight and remind himself of the hope yesterday's visit from Scott Denson had given him.

Denson had been in late the previous morning and decided the young man's condition had improved to the point where he could begin to wean Greg off the sedatives and paralytics that were keeping him from fighting the ventilator. After that, he said, it might take anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours for Greg to regain consciousness. Squinting blearily at his watch, Nick realized it had been almost thirty and his friend still showed no signs of awakening.

Anxious to immediately catch any variation in sound from the oxygen or cardiac monitors, he had slept only a few hours the previous evening and night. He knew he'd pay later in slower healing of his own injury, but as he had been given a month in which to concentrate on himself, he didn't regret for a moment devoting this time to Greg. Sitting up slowly, Nick stretched the kinks out as best he could and moved back into the chair he'd been occupying for the better part of two days.

"Afternoon, Greggo. I'm still here, bud. I didn't go anywhere. Tried to sleep... didn't get much. The doc said you should be wakin' up soon an' I wouldn't miss that for anything. C'mon... we all miss you, man... I miss you. Ya know... when I saw that bas... that guy hurtin' you, I about died. Time, it just... stretched out an' I thought... there's no way I'll ever get to you before he can... "

Nick paused, laughing a little, even through his tears. "I threw him across the room... an' then dribbled his head like a basketball. He probably still has a migraine. I wish you could've seen it. Look, the point is... there's a ton of stuff I haven't had the guts to say. I know the fact that I waited 'till this happened to speak up... makes me a coward an' a fool... but I'm really hopin' you can see past that. I'm gonna speak my piece whether you wake up or not... but, damn, I'd feel a lot better if I was sure you heard me an' I wasn't pourin' my heart out to the I.V. stand..."

A few moments later, as he was gathering his thoughts and preparing to tell Greg everything he'd been holding deep inside for most of a year, Nick's head snapped up. The steady, inexorable beeps the heart monitor had been putting out had begun to speed up. "Greg? I know you can hear me. Keep pushin', Greggo... don't you quit fightin', now... that's it... yeah, that's it... come on home, buddy..."

When Greg's pulse rate stepped up again and his eyelids began to flicker, Nick loosed a restrained, but joyful 'Ye-hah' and ran into the hall. "Nurse! Hey, he's comin' around"

"I'll page Dr. Denson."

Nick returned to the room to find Greg trying valiantly to open his eyes and struggling to breathe in counterpoint to the ventilator. "It's okay, Greg... easy, now. The doctor's on his way. He'll have the tube out any minute..."

Snatching a tissue, Nick gently wiped away a tear from the young man's cheek as he continued his quiet reassurance. "I know... not much longer. I'm here, Greg.. I'm right here. You've been so strong... just hang on another minute..."

A few seconds later, Scott Denson came rushing in only to receive a scowl from Nick. "Where you been, man! He's fightin' the damn machine! He can't breathe"

"I had to come down three floors and over two wings. I got here as soon as I could." Denson explained as he flipped switches and shut down the vent. He then stepped over to the bed and firmly grasped the tube. "I need you to listen and do exactly what I ask, alright, Greg? Take the deepest breath you can manage and hold it. Then when I say go, blow it all out, nice and steady. Okay... deep breath... and go... good... keep it up... almost there... okay. Good job."

He handed the tube to the nurse to discard and carefully began to examine Greg's throat, inside and out. "The bruising still looks bad, but it's fading nicely... You'll be really sore for a few days, but the overall damage is much less than I feared. Everything looks good, but I don't want you to even think about talking for at least a week. Between the tube and the assault, you throat needs a lot of time and rest if it's going to heal."

Nick rose and drew Denson a few feet away to talk with him.

"Can he have water"

"Ice chips today. If he tolerates that well, I'll see about upgrading him tomorrow."

"Okay. I understand. Look, doc... I gotta say thanks. I know we've been tough on you..."

"Forgotten. A courageous young man like Greg deserves fierce protection."

"Is there anything else I can do to help him? Just bein' here doesn't feel like enough..."

"It does much more good than you might think. Try and keep him calm, reassure him that he's safe and he hasn't been alone. And take care of yourself. Now that he's awake and recovering, that's the most important advice I can give you."

"Me? I'm fine."

"Uh-huh."

"Okay, so I'm tired. I've been tired before. I know how to handle it."

"If you get sick and end up in your own hospital room, who'll be here for Greg"

"I can't just go to sleep and leave him layin' there..."

"I seem to remember at least five more people who have been in and out of here at various times."

"They'll be asleep now. All of us usually work graveyard."

Denson smiled, but simultaneously expelled a sigh.

"Okay. How about I have a cot delivered so you can sleep right next to the bed"

Nick returned the smile.

"You got a deal."

"Good. I'll have the nurse bring in a cup of ice and the cot should be here within an hour."

Denson exited and Nick returned to his chair. He lifted Greg's smaller hand and encompassed it with his own. At first, his entire attention was on Greg's face, but soon a faint, jerky motion from the opposite side of the bed caught his eye. After a moment or two of confusion, he realized the young man was trying to sign.

"Easy... take it easy. I know what you're tryin' to do, Greg, but I don't understand ASL, buddy. Grissom an' the gang'll probably stop in before shift. You'll have to hold on 'till then, alright? I'll even leave a special message on boss man's voice mail so he'll know you need to talk to him. Okay"

Greg nodded slightly and relaxed. "Good. Right now... it's a little past two o'clock in the afternoon. Tonight's a long way off, so I want you to close your eyes and try to sleep." Nick told him, gently stroking the fingers of his free hand across Greg's forehead. "Yeah... there you go... everything's fine... no more monsters, nothin' to be afraid of... sleep..."

-

10:00 P.M.

Nick woke gradually, dragging himself halfheartedly out of the first continuous, restful sleep he'd gotten in days. Shifting on the cot so that his arm was free he checked his watch and decided to try and reach Grissom in person.

Pushing up, he slid his feet to the floor and stood, biting back a groan at how stiff his muscles were. He waited until he'd made it out into the hall before he pulled his phone out and dialed.

"Gil Grissom."

"Hey, Gris. You get my voice mail"

"I've only been up about half an hour, Nick. I haven't checked it yet. What's up"

"Greg came out of it early this afternoon. He's off the vent an' Denson says he's doin' okay. He'll be sore an' he's under orders not to talk for a week... but he's gonna be fine."

"That's great. I'll call Catherine and Warrick and let them know."

"Sara..."

"We're looking. She obviously doesn't want to be found."

"She'll lose her job... damn it, where the hell could she be"

"Every conceivable idea's been tried. There isn't much more we can do if she isn't ready or willing to come back."

"She's in pain. We can't just leave her out there alone..."

"We'll keep trying as long as it's feasible. Any other news on the Greg front"

"Yeah... kinda. This you won't believe 'till you see it, though."

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10:30 - OUTSIDE GREG'S ROOM

"Sign? Greg doesn't sign." Catherine said, furrowing her brow.

"You and I know that, but apparently noone told him." Grissom retorted. "All I know is what Nick said; that it looked to him like Greg was trying to fingerspell."

"I guess we'll find out." Warrick replied, opening the door.

The room was dimly lit, but the three newcomers immediately realized that changes had taken place. The large ventilator and cardiac monitor had been wheeled away and a cot, complete with blanket and pillow, now sat on the far side of the bed. Nick met them at the door.

"He's awake, but just barely. Go easy. He had a nightmare, woke himself up tryin' to scream. I've been givin' him ice chips to help his throat."

As the group approached, Greg, whose eyes had been half-lidded a moment before, suddenly became animated at the sight of his boss. Though the motion of his fingers was still slow and awkward due to his weakness, what he was attempting was now clearly recognizable as sign language.

HI

Grissom chuckled and gazed at the young lab tech in amazement.

"Hi yourself."

"Greg... man, when you can talk again, I have to know this story." Warrick said, mussing Greg's hair gently.

"Welcome back, sweetheart. You can't know how happy we are that you're okay." Catherine added.

ME TOO Greg spelled slowly.

Grissom translated and everyone laughed. The next question dissolved that laughter.

SAFE?

"Yes, you're safe." Gil assured him "The men who hurt you are both in prison and they aren't getting out anytime soon. That's a promise."

Greg heaved a sigh of relief, winced visibly and shed a few tears. Nick's first instinct was to sweep the younger man into his arms and not let go until all his pain was banished, but he hesitated for a moment, acutely aware of the others around the bed. Then he remembered his earlier promise, to tell his friend everything that was in his heart no matter what. In the excitement that had followed Greg's awakening, that vow had been shunted aside and forgotten. After a swift, anxious glance at the others, Nick dropped cautiously to the bed.

"Greg. Greg, look at me..."

When Greg responded, he saw Nick holding his arms open. More tears flowed, on both their parts, as Greg, with the support of a strong arm around his shoulders, struggled to sit up. While always conscious of the IV line, Nick somehow found a way to enfold Greg completely. Though on any other night he would have gone to great lengths to hide the fact that he was crying, this time the former cop didn't bother to sweep his tears away. He wanted Greg to see and feel them, to know how intensely thankful he was that one occasionally annoying, genuinely beloved lab tech was still alive.

"It's okay, Greggo... it's okay... we took care of it... just like we said we would... it's over, babe... it's all over..."

Grissom caught the eyes of the other two and nodded toward the door. They left quietly. Neither Greg nor Nick ever heard them go.

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END

Never fear faithful readers. A sequel is in the works that will follow Greg and Nick's developing relationship, Greg's gradual recovery and Sara's rescue. Oh... and their love isn't the only one that may be blossoming in CSI headquarters. Tune in to chapter one of "Change Is Never Easy" and find out...