Title: "To Care or Not To Care"

Author: PonchoLives

Category: Drama/Angst

Disclaimer: I own nothing except that laptop that this story was composed on.

Summary: When Nick gets into a bar fight, it's up to Gil Grissom to figure out why. Post Mea Culpa. (One shot)

Nick Stokes shut his car door with more force than was necessary. He ambled slowly towards the door of the bar, barely lifting his feet off the pavement. His body was so weary. He felt that if he could just make it inside, everything would be okay. He could forget about his day and just rest.

The walk from his car to the front door seemed to take forever but he finally reached his destination. Nick gave an almighty shove and walked inside "The Lucky Ace" bar. His ears were immediately greeted by familiar sounds - the clinking of glasses, the sounds of a pool game taking place, and of course, the plink-plink of a slot machine. You couldn't find anyplace in Vegas that didn't have a slot machine.

A few of the patrons were watching the baseball game on the television hanging over the bar, but Nick did not look up. Normally, he would have been very interested, but he didn't think he had the strength that was required to fully invest himself in watching the game. Instead, he sat down on a barstool and stared at his hands.

"Hey, Nick. What can I get you? The usual?" the barkeeper, Bob Franklin asked him as he wiped down a glass with his towel.

"Make it a whiskey." Nick replied, barely glancing up at Bob.

Bob cocked an eyebrow as he put the clean glass down and began to fill Nick's request. As he slid it over, he asked "Rough day?"

"Definitely not the best." Nick took the glass without looking at Bob and took a drink. He sat the glass down and wrapped his hands around it, staring at the contents.

Bob, who considered himself a psychologist who administered alcohol instead of prescription drugs, could see that something was clearly troubling Nick. It didn't take a genius to see that Nick wasn't in the mood to talk about it either. Bob was somewhat unnerved by this. Nick had helped him out last year when someone had tried to frame him for murder and he'd been grateful, telling Nick that he'd never have to pay for a drink again. In all honesty, Bob knew that he wasn't going to loose a lot of money because Nick wasn't a big drinker. Bob could probably count on his two hands the number of times Nick had actually come into his bar since then. Until about three months ago that is.

Since then, he'd probably come in at least once a week, sometimes more, and instead of getting the usual beer, Nick would order something harder. Usually whiskey. Something had changed in Nick. Bob could see that he was depressed about something. "Must be the job." Bob thought. It had to be difficult to do what Nick did.

Nick still had his eyes on his drink. He was trying to focus all his energy on drinking his whiskey rather than the knot that was rapidly growing in his stomach. He took another drink, hoping that would push the knot down further so he wouldn't notice it. "Don't think about it." the voice inside of him whispered. "It'll go away if you don't think about it. Just finish your drink."

Suddenly, the door to the bar burst open and a man stormed in. His eyes seemed to scan the room until the landed on Nick who was hunched over the counter, cradling his drink.

"Nick Stokes." It wasn't a question. The man walked up to Nick's side.

Nick turned his head slightly so as to get a look at the man who had addressed him. It was Michael Lange, the father of a victim who's case he had worked on earlier that day. Nick shifted his eyes back to his drink and said, "Mr. Lange. How can I help you?"

"How can you help me? I want to know what's going to happen next! What's going to happen to Steven Willis?" Michael's face was a canvass of emotion as he gestured wildly with his arms.

"Well, sir. There's nothing else I can do. There wasn't sufficient evidence to prosecute Mr. Willis. The District Attorney's not pressing forward." Nick's gaze stayed on his drink. He tried in vain to ignore the desperation he heard in Michael Lange's voice.

"Not enough evidence? You saw what he did to my son - what was left of his body!" Michael's voice was rising to the point that it was starting to draw the attention of the other bar patrons.

Nick closed his eyes and saw the mangled body of Thomas Lange, a five year-old boy who had made the mistake of trusting his neighbor and paid the dearest price for it. Again, he said "There's nothing else I can do."

"Well maybe if you got off that barstool, you could find some more evidence to nail Steven with!" Michael had moved a little closer to Nick and had partially bent over the CSI, who still continued to avoid his gaze.

"Mr. Lange, I went over everything repeatedly. There's nothing. You're just going to have to deal with the fact that sometimes the bad guy gets away and there's nothing you can do about it." Nick raised his voice a touch but stubbornly refused to acknowledge the fact that Michael's face was inches from the side of his own.
Michael did not appreciate Nick's comment and he slammed his fist down on the counter. He was now shouting as loud as he could. "I'm just going to have to deal with it? Tommy was my son and he's dead! The guy responsible is at home in his comfy living room and you're getting drunk in a bar! How is any of that okay?"

The bar was completely silent, the air filled with tension. A few of the patrons were alternating between giving Michael looks of sympathy and shooting Nick looks of utter contempt. They watched as Nick finally shifted his eyes to look at Michael and heard him say "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry? That's laughable!" Michael gave a despairing laugh before continuing. "Yes, I can see how sorry you are. If you cared at all, you be back at your little lab working on my son's case until it was finished. Instead, you're here. You have no idea what it's like to loose a child! To find his broken, damaged little body! That's the problem with you cops or whatever you are! You just don't care! Since the victim isn't your kid, it doesn't matter! You don't care!"

Nick stood up suddenly to the surprise of Mr. Lange. They were standing toe to toe. Nick was breathing rapidly and his jaw was clenched as he stared down Michael Lange. "Hey, back off! You don't know me! I do care! More than you know!"

Bob's spider-sense was tingling. He'd seen his share of bar fights, but something about this scene was different and it scared him a bit. He looked at the two men who were inches apart and nervously eyed the other patrons who were muttering about Nick. He knew he must intervene before something went horribly wrong. "Fellas, let's just calm down. We don't want a scene."

Nick was momentarily distracted by the sound of Bob's voice and turned his head to look at him. It was at this moment that Michael Lange chose to spring into action.

His fist connected with the side of Nick's face. Nick was immediately thrown off balance, but he regained his footing and dove for Michael. The whirl of fists that was Nick and Michael crashed into barstools, knocking them over. Nick slammed Michael's back into the counter before feeling someone grab a hold of his shirt from behind. Someone else had joined the fight.

Nick felt himself being whirled around by the new participant before being punched in the gut. Nick managed to look up and saw that this new guy had a good six inches of height on him. The giant brought his fist down hard upon Nick's face and made to do so again, but Nick stuck his hand up to block the punch. He twisted out of the guy's grip, wrenching the giant's arm in the process, only to be pounded on again by Michael. Nick threw a punch at Michael, stunning him for a moment.

Time seemed to freeze for a moment and it appeared that the fight would be over as soon as it started. Then all hell broke loose. Someone else dove at Nick, knocking his legs out from under him and suddenly, Michael, the giant, and the diver had combined into this lethal weapon intent on making Nick pay for the crime done to little Thomas Lange. Nick's efforts to defend himself went unnoticed for the most part by his attackers. As one, they punched and kicked Nick, ignoring the blood that was splattering on their clothes. They only stopped when they heard the gunshots.

Bob had watched the scene deteriorate right in front of his eyes. When Nick went down, he immediately got on the phone and shouted for the police to come and rescue one of their own. Then he'd hung up the phone and ran to get his handgun. He wasn't about to try and break up the fight without any help. He fired two shots into the floor, hoping that it would bring Nick's attackers to their senses. It worked.

It was like watching them emerge from a dream state. They stopped and looked at the broken man beneath them as if seeing him for the first time. As one, they stood up, looked at each other, at their hands, and then back at their handiwork.
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Jim Brass sighed. He had heard the call, that Nick was in trouble, and had immediately made his way to the scene. It was not a pretty sight. Nick's blood was all over three people, his attackers, as well as all over himself. It seemed that he shouldn't have been able to loose that much blood without being dead.

Brass sighed again and ran his fingers through what remained of his hair. At least the coroner wasn't needed. It was a small comfort, but he'd take it.

He watched Gil Grissom exit his vehicle and make his way over to him with Sara Sidle in tow.

"What happened, Jim?" There was a hint of emotion in Grissom's voice that Brass rarely heard. He knew that the scientist was worried about Nick.

"Bob Franklin, that's the barkeeper, said that Nick came in looking like someone had just shot his dog. A few minutes later, a Mr. Michael Lange came in looking to chew Nicky a new one. It appears that Nick had been assigned to investigate the death of Lange's son and the DA had decided that Nick's evidence wasn't strong enough to go to trial. So Mr. Lange decided to take his frustration out on Nick, who was handling himself okay until two others joined the fight. It seems these guys agreed with Lange's accusations that our boy hadn't worked hard enough on the case."

"Nick wasn't on duty, was he?" Grissom asked.

"Nope. Just got off in fact. I called Catherine. She's meeting the ambulance at the hospital." Brass gave Grissom a look. As if getting the crap beat out of him wasn't bad enough, the first person Nick was going to have to deal with was Catherine, who as Grissom understood it, was having some trouble dealing with her new role as supervisor. Yes, things were not going to be pleasant for Nick Stokes.

"Was Nick awake? Did he say anything?" Sara asked, her face etched with concern.

"He still hadn't regained consciousness when the ambulance left." Brass looked away, sighing again.
"The case should be easy enough to build what with the barkeeper's statement and all. " Grissom turned to look at the three men covered in the blood of his coworker. He nodded to Sara, who understood the subtle command.

Sara walked over to Nick's attackers. The smell of Nick's blood filled her nostrils, making her want to gag. It wasn't so much the smell of blood that bothered her rather than the fact that all this blood belonged to one man, her friend. She set her case down, opened it, and retrieved three swabs. She fixed the threesome with a steely gaze and said, "Okay, I'm going to need your DNA and your clothes."

Grissom turned his eyes away from where Sara was collecting evidence and walked purposefully over to the barkeeper, Bob. He had a question that needed answering right away.

"Mr. Franklin? I'm Gil Grissom with the Las Vegas Crime Lab." He indicated towards his badge. "Do you mind telling me what happened here tonight?"

Bob launched into a narrative, repeating what Brass had already told him. "And I fired my gun twice into the floor to get their attention and it worked. Man, there was so much blood! I thought he was dead for sure! Everything happened so fast! I'm sorry that this happened to him. Nick's a nice guy."

Gil fixed Bob with a look of surprise. "Do you know Nick?"

"Yeah, he helped me out of a sticky situation last year and has come to the bar a few times over the year. A few months ago, he started coming in about once a week. Nice guy but I could tell something wasn't right. He wasn't a big talker. Nice guy though."

Grissom took a moment to absorb this revelation. Nick had been frequenting a bar? That didn't seem like normal behavior on Nick's part. Why would he do that? Does it have anything to do with work? A few months ago would have been when the team was split. Grissom wasn't sure if there was a direct correlation between that and Nick's new habit or if the two were unrelated. The split had been hard on everyone. Maybe Nick's pain had gone unnoticed and he had sought comfort at the bottom of a glass. He wouldn't be the first CSI to have done so.

Grissom sighed and asked the difficult question he had come over to ask in the first place. "How much alcohol had Nick had before the fight started?"

"He hadn't even finished his first drink. A whiskey." Bob replied, shaking his head.

Grissom thanked him and walked away. He didn't know what to think. He assumed that Nick had gotten drunk and allowed himself to get into a fight. The news that Nick had soberly participated in a fight that nearly cost him his life was staggering.

Grissom almost wished that Nick had been drunk. It would have been easier to deal with from a professional standpoint as well as an emotional one. Nick had always been so easy-going, a pleasure to work with. He was loyal and kind. He genuinely cared about others - to a fault at times. Nick Stokes was not the kind of guy to get in a bar fight just for the heck of it. It didn't make sense and Grissom knew that it would eat at him until he found out why.

Grissom went over to Sara, whispered a few words into her ear and left. Sara didn't need his help, but Gil knew someone who did need it. He just hoped Nick would be willing to accept it.

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Nick Stokes laid in his bed, still fuming about the "conversation" he had just had with Catherine. She had honestly tried to get him to talk about why the fight had occurred, but when the comment about his behavior being an embarrassment to the lab and his career slipped out, things took an unpleasant turn. Nick had not taken kindly to these words and shared a few of his own with his supervisor. Catherine in turn suggested that he take some time off to recover but made it clear that he was not going to be paid for it.

Whatever. Nick didn't care if he was suspended. He slammed his fist down on his bed. He instantly regretted this as the action sent pain shooting throughout his body. He gritted his teeth and told himself to be a man. These injuries were nothing, just a few wounds that would heal eventually. They would be gone, forgotten sooner than they should be if truth be told. Just like little Thomas Lange.

Nick willed himself to not think about Thomas. The knot in his stomach was still there, he could feel it growing and eating away at him. He didn't know how to make it stop. "Please just make it go away." he whispered desperately to no one in particular.

Hearing a sound at the door, he looked up and saw Grissom standing there. Nick couldn't read the look on his former supervisor's face. He couldn't even make sense of his own emotions let alone the enigma that was Grissom. Part of him loathed the thought of playing the victim to CSI Gil Grissom, becoming the bug under his microscope. Another part of him was relieved to see him. Though far from compassionate and caring, Grissom had the ability to make chaotic things seem calmer. Perhaps that was due to Grissom's more scientific nature. Whatever it was, Nick knew that Grissom was more than likely the only person who could help him make sense of the storm that was raging in his soul.

For a moment, the two men stared at each other. Nick broke the silence. "Not a pretty picture, is it?"

That was understatement if ever Gil heard one. He had run into Catherine who had explained Nick's injuries before sarcastically wishing him good luck in his dealings with Nick. A broken nose. A gash on his forehead. A busted lip. Two black eyes. A sustained concussion. Three cracked ribs. A sprained wrist. Bruises everywhere. Nick's handsome features were marred by the violence he had suffered. But that didn't bother Grissom as much as Nick's eyes. They were practically lifeless.
"Why are you here? Shouldn't you be collecting evidence or something?" Nick wasn't sure if Grissom was here to add to Catherine's tirade or not so he decided to put up a strong front until Grissom showed his cards.

"Are you here for the clothes that I wore tonight? They're over there." Nick indicated with his head, which only increased the pain he was feeling.

Noting Nick's wince, Grissom took a few steps into the room and asked, "Are you in a lot of pain?"

"Well, you know what they say about pain. It's your friend. It lets you know that you're still alive. It's nothing I haven't felt before. I was tossed out of a window you know." Nick gave him a smile that chilled Grissom to the bone.

There was another moment of silence between them. "So, why are you here?" Nick asked again.

"To see you. Talk to you." the older man admitted.

The concern on Grissom's face that accompanied this statement looked genuine which surprised Nick a bit. Perhaps he wasn't reading Grissom clearly. "You mean to get my statement."

"That's part of it. A wise CSI told me once that I couldn't ignore the human element." Grissom gave him a small smile while seating himself in a chair. "This is me not ignoring the human element."

If Grissom had been hoping for a smile from Nick, he didn't get one. The annoyance in Nick's voice was clear. "Fine. I was sitting at the bar when Mr. Lange came in. He started shouting at me about his son's case. I tried to calm him down, but it didn't work. Then he said something that made me mad and I stood up. I got distracted when the barkeeper tried to diffuse the situation and that's when Mr. Lange swung at me. We were fighting when a tall guy joined the fight. I managed to get free of both of them and I thought for a moment that the fight was going to end. That's when I got tackled and I never got back up."

"What did Mr. Lange say that made you mad?" Grissom inquired, unaware that he had leaned closer to Nick ever so slightly.

Nick looked away. Grissom watched Nick's fingers play with the sheet that covered him. Finally, Nick looked back at Grissom, a different kind of pain etched on his face. "He said that I didn't care."

A few years ago, Grissom would have given him an "I Told You So" look. He had warned Nick of the dangers of empathizing with the victims and their families. He would not do that now. Back then, he had only seen the negative ramifications of empathy. Now, he knew that Nick's ability to empathize was part of what made him such a great, unique CSI. It could be a strength as much as it could be a weakness.

"So, by getting into a fight, you were proving to Mr. Lange that you did care?" Grissom asked in an attempt to try and get a handle on Nick's thought process.
At these words, Nick's stomach twisted into an even bigger knot. He wanted to say yes, to make himself believe that's why he had let himself get provoked, but his insides screamed that it wasn't true. Dropping his gaze ever so slightly, Nick replied "I knew he was right. I didn't care. Not as much as I should have at any rate."

Whatever answer Grissom had been expecting to hear, this was not it. He made as if to respond to this confession when Nick started to speak again at an accelerated rate, becoming more agitated with every word he spoke.

"I don't know how I got this so far gone. Everything's just so different and I hate it. I miss our team. You guys were like my surrogate family. Catherine's getting on my nerves all the time which kills me because we used to have such a good relationship. Warrick's just different. We don't talk like we used to. And I feel like I never see the rest of you. I miss Sara and Greg. And you. But it's not just that. I miss the way I used to be. I miss the way my heart would ache for the victim. I miss my righteous indignation. I'm no longer surprised by what people are capable of doing to each other and that scares me. I look in the mirror and I don't know who I am anymore."

Nick was on the verge of desperation. Grissom watched him unravel and felt his heart ache for the younger man. Now that he thought about it, Gil felt that he should have realized that Nick wasn't doing well but he had been caught up by Sara and her problems. He silently cursed himself for neglecting Nick. It seemed that the split of the team had only exacerbated the turmoil that was growing inside of Nick.

Nick continued, rapidly losing control over his emotions. "I can't be that guy, Grissom. I can't be the guy who's not upset when viewing the broken body of a five year-old boy. I should be upset every time I see the body of a dead child because it's a tragedy that should have never happened. There is nothing okay with investigating the murder of an innocent child. It should never be "just another case" - commonplace. It makes me sick to think that I could ever become that callous."

Nick used his good hand to support his head and wiped his eyes with the other one. His body shook with the ferocity of the emotions and pain that were coursing through his body simultaneously.

Grissom took this moment to stand up and walk over to the window in Nick's room. The sun was just starting to peak over the horizon and it's rays were casting a brilliant orange glow across the waking city. "You're right. The murder of a child, or anyone for that matter, is a tragedy. It's a terrible, terrible thing and it's okay to be upset by it. You have a big heart. No one can deny that. But if you keep carrying around your feelings for the victims you come across it's going to consume you. You have to find an outlet, a way of releasing those emotions."

He leaned against the window and rested his head against the window pane for a brief moment, letting his words sink into the silence, before speaking again.

"Nick, we're surrounded by people who are in the midst of painful times. It's our job to confront that pain and help them heal by providing them the measure of peace that comes with closure. Most of the time, we're able to do that, but sometimes the bad guy gets away. And we feel like we've failed. The life of a criminalist can be very dark and depressing because we're constantly surrounded by death and suffering. Being in our line of work can make us forget what a beautiful place the world can be. While the world is full of great suffering, it's also full of great joy."

It was at that moment that the orange rays of the sun spilled into the room. Grissom could not have asked for a more perfect example of the beauty that could still be found. He gazed at it for a few seconds before turning to look at Nick whose eyes had followed Grissom to the window.

Nick thought about what Grissom had said. In his heart, he knew that Grissom was right. He wanted to find that joy, to remind himself of the beautiful things in the world, but he wasn't sure how to do it. He posed this conundrum to Grissom.

"You could expand your love of birds by actually going bird-watching. There's a club in Vegas you could join. It would take you out of the city and into nature. Of course, maybe you prefer to watch birds only if they're on Animal Planet." Grissom was rewarded with a small smile as he sat back down in the chair he had vacated a few minutes ago.

"I must admit that would be nice. Relaxing." A small smile tugged at the corner of Nick's mouth.

The two men were silent for a moment, each lost in his own thoughts. Something occurred to Nick and he broke the silence saying, "Even at an early age, I always knew that I wanted to help people. When I was a high school student, I participated in one of those tutoring programs. I helped kids with their science homework. It was great to see how those kids' faces would light up when they finally understood what I was telling them. I really enjoyed doing that. Maybe I should do something like that again. It would be nice to help someone who was alive and healthy for a change."

Grissom smiled as he watch Nick grow a little more animated at the thought of helping someone. Inwardedly he felt himself relax a bit. Nick was definitely the kind of person who benefitted from a heart-to-heart, even if it was a small one. He marveled at Nick's idea of therapy. It was just like Nick to seek comfort through some selfless act.

"You're a good man, Nick, and a great CSI. Don't forget it." Grissom placed a hand on Nick's as if to provide reassurance. He then stood up and went over to collect Nick's clothes.

"Uh, Gris? I don't press charges against Mr. Lange." Nick's voice faltered a bit and he had resumed playing with his sheet.

"Are you sure Nick?" Grissom's eyebrow was cocked in mock surprise. He had a feeling Nick would say something like that.

"Yeah. That poor man's been through enough. I know he was upset about his kid and the lack of justice. If it had been my kid, I probably would have done the same thing. Besides, I'm not sure I was an innocent victim in all this."

Grissom nodded in understanding. In all likelihood, charges would be filed against Mr. Lange anyway, but Grissom would make sure that Mr. Lange knew that it wasn't Nick's doing.

He made his way towards the door but stopped short. He turned to Nick and said, "I know I'm not your supervisor anymore and we're not on the same shift, but I'd like to think we're capable of talking as friends. My door's always open for you Nick - day, night, or swing shift. Anytime you need to talk."

"Thank you." Nick gave a small wave as Grissom departed. He laid his head back onto his pillow and thought about what Grissom had said. The hardest part was over - admitting his fears. Now, he could begin to heal. As he closed his eyes, he could feel the knot in his stomach begin to loosen and he smiled.

-Fin-