Chapter Twelve – Epilogue
"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
As much as he'd wished it, Nick's recovery wasn't fast or easy. Two days after David Hodges' violent death in his room, Dominguez diagnosed the onset of pulmonary edema, fluid building up in Nick's lungs as a result of his poor renal function. Dialysis eased the burden on his kidneys, but it was nearly three weeks before he could be moved to a regular med/surg room, and another two before his eventual discharge.
A week prior to Nick's release from the hospital, Gil had a visit from the sheriff.
"Have you thought about what we discussed?" Mobley was expressionless, all business.
Gil considered, and then lifted a hand, making an aimless gesture. "In all honesty? Not lately."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Gil, as you know, we're all working under a deadline here. Fact of the matter is, we're two days away from the end of May, and decisions have to be made." Mobley cleared his throat. "Now, considering the events of a month ago, you certainly don't have to worry about one position. But that leaves us with one more that is going to be eliminated. Based on what I've seen, it appears that Stokes has by leaps and bounds the largest number of absences."
Gil stared at him. "You're honestly suggesting I fire Nick? Now?"
"It isn't termination. It's a layoff. It won't reflect badly on his resume. Layoffs are a fact of life these days."
"Fact of life?" Oddly, he felt dizzy suddenly. A hissing in his ears, the room's light fading a little bit. "You want me to tell Nick that this is a fact of LIFE?"
No answering alarm on Mobley's face. He was infernally calm. "I'll trust you to handle it in an appropriate fashion. But you will handle it."
Regarding him without saying anything, Gil sat very still for a moment. Then with a crisp nod, he pushed himself away from his desk and stood. "Come with me."
"Grissom, this is not the time –"
Gil ignored him, brushing past him to stalk into the hallway.
It was early yet, and he saw various members of his team around. It took only a lift of his chin to include them on his walk to the lounge. Greg, completely healed from his assault, with the spring back in his step. Catherine and Warrick, bickering about matters Gil didn't know about and probably never would, and he didn't mind it, because they were a team. Teams bickered. But teams accomplished, too. Accomplished a very great deal.
Sara, looking curious, and Bobby with a smudge of grease on the bridge of his nose, Archie. All of them, save Nick. He nodded at each in turn, and looked over at Mobley, standing in the doorway with the first sign of discomfort on his features.
"No more secrets," Gil said evenly. "The first order of the evening. I don't keep them from you, and you don't keep them from me."
The rest looked obscurely nervous, a little uncomfortable. But Catherine nodded, her eyes flickering to take in Mobley's presence before returning to Gil. "Hear, hear," she said loudly.
"With that said. We're in a budget crunch. You all know this. We've cut all the equipment funding we can without leaving ourselves seriously under-supplied. There isn't any fat left. We're down to the bone."
More specifically uncomfortable looks. Fear, in more than one set of intent eyes.
Gil nodded crisply. "And so I've been told that one position has to be eliminated."
A sound like the sighing of wind through elm leaves, indrawn breaths. Gil held up his hand. "But." He drew a deep breath of his own. "We've already lost one member of our team. And we've come very close to losing another." A flicker of remembered fear made his voice dip briefly. "And so," he continued thickly, turning to face Mobley, "I've decided to say no. No, we won't eliminate that position."
Mobley's cheeks had gone a dull shade of red, and his blue eyes narrowed. "As much as I respect your obvious loyalty to your colleagues," he enunciated, "the decision isn't yours to make. You give me no choice but to make it for you."
"Correction," Gil said calmly. "You won't lay off a man whose absences were entirely due to an act of vendetta on the part of another. You won't have to. Because you're going to find that money elsewhere."
With a peevish sigh, Mobley shook his head. "And where do you suggest that might be, Grissom? Believe me, I'm all ears. Growing on trees?"
Gil allowed a little smile. "Much closer than that. Right here."
"I don't follow."
"A simple matter of addition and subtraction. You'll take Hodges' salary, and add to it what you need from mine, to make it equal."
He didn't risk looking at his colleagues then. Just focused on Mobley, whose expression had already taken on a sneering cast. "You'll pay Stokes's salary? Come on, Grissom. Not even you would be so selfless."
"I'd rather take that pay cut," Gil said tightly, "than see a man punished for something that is entirely outside himself. And no matter how you slice it, no matter what you call it – a layoff, a downsizing maneuver – the results are the same." He swallowed. "Nick's been punished enough already. I won't see this happen, too. If it takes a pay cut, so be it."
"Not that big of one," Catherine said softly.
Gil glanced at her.
"Believe me, I need every penny I earn," she continued slowly. "But I don't want blood money. And that's what it would be." She looked at Mobley. "I'll pitch in. Don't fire Nick. Not like this."
"Shit, I'm on that," Warrick said gruffly. "You got a man lying on his back in the hospital and you wanna FIRE his ass? No way. It ain't right."
Greg had shoved his hands deep into his pockets. His expression was tragic. "Man, I let Nick down," came his thick voice. "And now you're saying he'll lose his job over it? Catherine's right. It's blood money. Cut my pay if you have to. This won't last forever. And Nick deserves way better than what he's getting."
The lump in Gil's throat ached far worse than his cracked cheekbone ever had, healing. He couldn't push words past it. Instead he nodded, and kept nodding, awkwardly, while Sara shrugged and said it was worth it, and Bobby, and Archie. All of them. His bewildered mind was dancing with numbers. It wouldn't even be so much of a cut, not with all of them pitching in. He'd make sure his was the biggest slice. He could afford it far more than Catherine. But it was doable. For each of them.
The room was very quiet when he turned to look back at Mobley. The sheriff's face was pale again, but this time he looked not angry, but quenched. And, reluctantly, gratified.
"So what's it going to be?" Gil asked hoarsely. "Because if you fire Nick after all this, you'll have my entire salary to play with, Mobley. I'll leave."
Mobley said nothing for a moment, and then gave a curt nod. "Under the circumstances," he said slowly, "I think arrangements could be made. That is, if everyone's willing, and stays that way."
"I think we've made it clear we're quite willing."
"I can't promise to restore salaries to their current levels anytime soon. Our fiscal situation isn't improving in the near future."
It was on the tip of Gil's tongue to mention that was more up to the voters putting Mobley and his ilk into office. But he refrained, and nodded. "Understood. Do we have a deal?"
Mobley's thin mouth quirked, almost a smile but not quite. "I'd say we have a deal, Mr. Grissom."
Gil held out his hand. Mobley's fingers were cold, but his grip was firm.
"Thank GOD," Catherine said in a shaky voice. "Does this mean we can all lay THAT rumor aside now?"
Glancing at her, Gil grinned. "That's the second-best idea I've heard all day."
She grinned, and held up her hands. "Amen to that."
"No, look, right there. See it?"
Gil shook his head, squinting. "Not a thing."
Nick pointed. "Right there, the limb that's sorta shaped like an S. The nest's right there."
"I think," Gil admitted with a sigh, "I need binoculars for that."
"Can't believe you didn't know they were nesting right in your backyard." Nick grinned and shook his head. "Cooper's hawks. That's so cool."
"Isn't this a bit urban for hawks?"
Gil leaned a shoulder against the window frame, turning back to look at the big elm. "I'll try to be more observant in the future."
He glanced at Nick. A week out of the hospital, and Nick was still far too thin, his health fragile. Still having biweekly dialysis treatments, and Gil wasn't sure whether or not that might be a lifelong proposition. But the color was right in his cheeks, and the light in his brown eyes was the one Gil remembered. "Yes?"
Nick's fingers tightened on the arms of his chair. "I can't believe you guys did that." His voice was suddenly rusty, crackling a little. "Pretty goddamn cool."
Gil smiled. "It was, wasn't it?"
Nick nodded. "I won't forget that."
"Neither will I."
Nick's bashful smile faded into contemplation, as he glanced outside again. "I keep thinking about him," he said softly. "Hodges. I don't think anyone's ever – hated me before. Not like that."
"Hatred, maybe. Envy, certainly."
"Just – doesn't really make sense to me. Why would anyone be jealous?"
Gil shifted, crossing his arms. "If I could really explain the mechanics of envy, predict who would do what, I'd quit my job and hang out a psychoanalysis shingle." He smiled briefly. "Hodges saw something in you he wanted for himself," he continued. "What that really was -- I'm not sure even he could have articulated well."
Nick nodded slowly, still watching the nest in the elm tree. "Maybe so." He sighed, and leaned back. "So can I come back to work now?" he asked a lot more vigorously.
"You feel up to it?"
Nick considered, and then shrugged. "I think so, yeah. I'm ready."
"Then I'd say, absolutely. Welcome back, Nicky."
A bright, open grin. No lingering shadows. "Thanks. It's good to be back."
Gil smiled, and between the branches of the elm he made out the grayish lump of a bird's nest.