Title: "In This Life"

Author: PonchoLives

Category: Drama/Angst

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

Summary: This explores the brief connection that Nick and Sage shared in "Gum Drops." Spoilers through that episode.

Sage kneeled in front of Nick and fixed him with an inquisitive stare. "Do you believe in past lives?"

Nick smiled and shook his head. "No ma'am."

She inclined her head. "How come?"

"Cause I'm just trying to make it through this one." he said with a touch of bashful honesty.

Sage looked deep into his eyes and for a moment, they connected. It was like she could see into the very depths of his soul. Her eyes changed as if she were now reliving the darkest moments of his life. Unbidden, these moments unfolded before them both like some horrific picture show.

He saw Amy Hendler pointing a gun at him and the sound of his voice begging for his life filled his ears.

"I'm sorry" Amy whispered, tears brimming in her eyes.

"No, wait!" The panic was evident in his voice. He hadn't been prepared for this. This wasn't how it was supposed to end.

"But you arrested my husband!" She cried as she gripped gun tighter, determined to see her actions through.

He stuck his hand out in front of him, knowing full well it would provide him with no protection from a speeding bullet, and gave one final passionate plea before the inevitable occurred. "Wait!"

But it never came. Grissom had suddenly arrived and saved the day. He had escorted Amy away, leaving Nick distraught but very much alive. Even to this day, Nick could still remember what it had felt like. He had been so scared - so raw and exposed. He remembered feeling ashamed by his emotional breakdown in front of Grissom, the man he had tried so hard to impress back in those days. He had not responded it all like he thought he would have in that kind of situation. You never know how you're going to respond to death until you stare it in the face.

Then that scene faded back into the recesses of his mind along with the fear and panic that had gripped him during those moments. A new one took its place. He was pacing back and forth in the break room, anxiously waiting to see if he was about to be exonerated in the murder of Kristy Hopkins.

"I think that you and I should head over to the police station." Catherine sighed heavily as she entered the room.

"DNA didn't pan out, huh?" A sinking feeling had entered the pit of his stomach as he realized his life was about to change forever. He was about to lose his job and his reputation for a crime he had not committed. The evidence had failed him.

"Never have I seen such a clean match. Jack Willman killed her." Catherine's sad smile had conveyed so much emotion. Sorrow. Relief. Pity. Love.

"Thank you." He said with genuine heart-felt gratitude before embracing his friend.

Relief. Sweet relief yet it was tinged with sadness. He had been spared a lifetime in prison, but Kristy had paid the ultimate price. He had wanted to help her, to save her from herself and the life she had created, but he had failed her. So much for being the White Knight he had envisioned himself to be. It was only later that he learned that she had lied to him and he had willingly played the part of a fool. He learned the hard way that you can't save those who don't want to be saved. No matter how hard you try.

Again, the scene faded. Now, he saw himself walking down a hallway at full speed, a box in his hand. The box contained evidence from the Dylan Buckley case, one that had forced him to relive a horrible memory from his childhood.

"Nick, I'll have you removed from the case. You're confronting suspects before the evidence is processed. You're flying solo, cutting me out. What's going on?" Catherine had chased after him and was now demanding an explanation for his odd behavior.

He could have lied, but opted, this one time, to expose his darkest secret. "Okay. There are some people you're supposed to be able to trust, you know? I was nine. And she was a last-minute baby-sitter. All I can remember doing afterwards is sitting in my room in the dark, staring at the door waiting for my mom to get home. But I've never told anyone before."
"I'm sorry." Whatever answer she had been expecting to hear, it was evident from the look on her face that this had not been it. With a sad look in her eye, Catherine placed a tender hand on his shoulder.

"It's what makes a person, I guess. I'm sorry, Catherine." His eyes burned with unshed tears and shame as he turned away.

At an early age, he had learned that not all people were good. There were some who were just downright evil. They did things that they were not supposed to. The Buckley case had brought all those old feelings back - reopened the wound that had healed. Try though he may, he could never forget the abuse he had suffered at the hands of another. It colored the way he approached his job and his life. How could it not? It was a part of him and it always would be.

Thankfully, the image faded into oblivion along with the memory of those wandering hands and the tears of a 9 year-old-boy. It was replaced by the bespeckled face of Nigel Crane, covered in dust and holding a gun.

"Nick, you know what a nine-millimeter slug does to a skull at close range? You know?" Nigel asked in the characteristically nervous tone of his.

"Yeah." he answered quietly. He had a good idea where this conversation was heading.

Nigel caressed his face with the gun, contemplating the image his words were creating. "Blow it right apart, right? Brains like strawberry swirled. Whipped cream, everywhere. And you. You'd have to scoop that stuff up, right? Yeah, little pieces of skull and bone and brains. All in individual baggies with the victim's name on the label."

Nigel had turned the gun back on Nick and he had stared it down, appearing a lot braver than he felt. "You know I don't want to disappoint you, Nigel, but this isn't the first time I've had a gun in my face. How do you want this to end, Nigel?"

"How do I want this to end?" His voice was filled with a quiet desperation. "I want you to be able to remember my name."

And he always would. Nick would never be able to forget the man who had invaded his privacy so completely, who had climbed inside of his head - stealing his thoughts and desires right along with his clothes. He had never desired to be the center of attention. He just wanted to be left alone to live his life, but Nigel Crane had turned the spotlight on him, making Nick the center of his psychotic world. It had made him ill to think that Nigel had posed a dead Jane Galloway as a gift for him. It had made ill to think that Nigel had watched him sleep when he was at his most vulnerable, lurking just above him in the rafters. It was yet another violation he had endured.

As Nigel's face faded from view, he saw himself in an interrogation room with Andy Jones and his mother, discussing the death of Chase Ryan.

"You put him in the dryer." he stated firmly.

"Mm-mm. Mm-hmm." Andy shook his head in denial.

Nick shook his head. "Mm-hmm. Chase can't even lock himself inside those things. They lock from the outside. And I matched your print on the handle. I got it off your school's safe kit."

"He asked me to. And after that, it gets a little fuzzy." Andy admitted weakly. He face was contorted with confusion and grief.

"You put your best friend in a ... in a dryer, and you turned it on, and you just walked away? What is wrong with you?" his mother asked, tears in her eyes. She was looking at her son in a whole new light and was shocked by what she saw.

Nick could barely mask the horror he felt when Andy threw up on the table.

Another dead kid, his life snuffed out before its time. Snuffed out at the hands of another kid. Nick didn't know if he had the strength to take it any more. When he had left the lab that night, he couldn't recall the last time he had felt so utterly lost. His heart ached for Chase's untimely death and Andy's loss of innocence. How do you survive in a world where kids kill kids? Where was the light, the hope, in this dark world?

The scene faded into darkness and Nick waited for a new image to appear but none came. Instead a faint green glow flooded his mind and he immediately felt trapped on all sides. He was back in his own private hell.

Walter Gordon's taunting cackle rang in his ears. "Hi, CSI guy. You wondering why you're here? Because you followed the evidence. Because that's what CSIs do. So breathe quick, breathe slow, put your gun in your mouth and pull the trigger. Any way you like, you're going to die here. Okay."

It was a fear unlike anything he'd ever experienced. Indeed, fear wasn't the right word. What he had felt when he first heard those words was beyond explanation. It was pure, unadulterated terror and panic, which could only be brought on by the realization that there is absolutely nothing you can do to save yourself. Nothing. In that moment, he was overcome by complete and utter hopelessness. It was a feeling that he never wanted to experience again.

Then, as soon as they had appeared, the images were gone and he felt the sun shining on his face, making him warm once again.

Nick stared straight into Sage's eyes and saw that they were filled with a mixture of sorrow and love. Sage reached forward and grabbed his hand in a gesture of comfort.

"I think you're doing pretty well." she whispered.

As she stood up to leave, Nick was struck by the power of her words. He understood what she meant. All of these crimes that had been done to him and all of the terrible things he had witnessed had made him a stronger person. He had refused to be beaten. Victimized but never the victim.

Bad things happened to good people. There was no way around that, but once you suffered something evil, you had to decide what to do next. Would you lay down and let the rest of the world walk all over you, crushing the very life out of your bones? Or would you pick yourself up and stand up straight, bruised but not defeated?

Nick Stokes had opted for the latter.

Oddly enough, it was his recent near-death experience that had rekindled his hope. After being buried alive, he had emerged a broken man yet one reborn. He did not intend to squander his second chance. Lurking on death's doorstep only to be pulled back at the last second by the hands of those you loved had given him a renewed sense of faith and hope in life, in himself, and in others. In his darkest hour, when he needed them most, his friends had been there for him. He was alive and well. He had vowed to make the most of every day, to not let himself be overcome by feelings of depression or the terrors that still haunted him.

It was hard to keep that frame of mind. It was a daily struggle that he faced, one that Sage had experienced vicariously during the brief moments they had shared. She understood him and what he was going through. She had glimpsed into the inner most regions of his soul in a way that no other person had ever done and offered him the gift he needed most.

Faith. That extra boost of encouragement to keep him heading down the path he was walking down - the path to healing.

Jumping off the step, he rushed forward a few feet and called out, "Hey Sage!"

The woman turned and looked at him with expectancy.

Suddenly gripped with emotion, Nick managed to say, "Thanks."

Understanding his meaning, she nodded, giving him a brief smile, and they parted ways.