Throbbing pain woke him. Moaning, Greg opened his eyes only to find himself painfully dazzled by the brightness. Quickly he shut them and waited for a few minutes before trying again.
Forcing his eyes open, he squinted against the light and slowly the sleeping figure of Nick Stokes came into view. His head was back and his mouth was open as he snoozed in a chair beside Greg's bed.
Why is Nick in my room? Greg wondered, then realised he wasn't in his room at all. He was in hospital. It didn't help his confusion. How did I get here?
All he could remember was violence at the hands of Christof and his men. The excruciating throb in his shoulders reminded him of that. But he had no idea how he had ended up in the hospital with Nick Stokes sleeping by his bed. Not that he was complaining; aside from the pain, it was one of the nicest things he could picture waking up to.
He studied Nick. Was it his imagination or did the older man's face look a little strained? There were dark shadows under Nick's eyes, his clothes looked rumpled and there was stubble several days old on his face. What had happened?
Reluctant to wake Nick but needing to know what had happened, Greg tried to call his friend. However, all he managed was some sort of pitiful croak. He swallowed hard in his parched mouth and tried again.
It didn't sound like him at all. The voice coming from his mouth was weak, cracked and inaudible, a shell of his former voice. But it was enough to wake Nick. Startled, he shot up in his chair and stared at Greg like he'd seen a ghost.
"Greg! You're awake! How do you feel?"
"Been better," Greg croaked and swallowed. God, his mouth was dry. "Water?" he whispered, looking pleadingly at Nick.
Without saying a word, Nick reached for the jug of water on the table at the end of the bed and poured some into a glass. He slipped a straw into it and tilted it towards Greg so he could drink.
Lifting his head slightly, Greg managed to gulp down some water before his head plopped back onto the pillow. Even such a simple movement had left him feeling exhausted. "Thanks," he mumbled.
"Anytime," said Nick, putting the glass back. "Do you need anything? How's your shoulder?"
"I'll ask the doctor for something," said Nick at once. He stood up and left the room. Within minutes he was back with a nurse who smiled kindly at Greg before emptying the contents of a syringe into his line.
"There," she said patting Greg's arm gently. "That'll help. If you need anything, just ask Nick to get one of us."
"Okay, thanks," he mumbled, wondering why Nick was on a first name basis with the nurse.
With a quick glance at Nick, she left the room. The Texan sat back into the chair again, his eyes on Greg. "Need anything else?"
Greg shook his head and closed his eyes. He felt so tired but he needed to know what had happened. "How'd I get here?"
"We found you in the desert. You've been pretty out of it for a few days."
"What happened?" Greg mumbled, trying to stay awake. He could already feel the effects of whatever the nurse had given him.
"It's a long story," answered Nick softly. "I'll tell you when you're feeling better."
"Yeah, I'm staying. Get some rest, Greg, we'll talk later."
"'Kay." Greg stopped fighting the urge to sleep. There was something oddly comforting about knowing that Nick would be there when he woke up.
Nick watched Greg sleep and felt at ease for the first time in over a week. The first few days in the hospital had been extremely rough for the young lab tech. The knife wound had caused serious damage to his shoulder, requiring immediate surgery to stop the bleeding, despite the fact that Greg had been suffering from dehydration and hypothermia. Unfortunately, the risky surgery coupled with the coyote bites had caused an infection to set in and Greg had spent the first three days in the ICU.
Nick hadn't left the hospital once, having begged Grissom into allowing him to take some holiday time. He guessed there was some serious gossip circulating in the lab about his motives for doing so, but found that he really didn't care. All he wanted was for Greg to be okay.
Swallowing hard, Nick studied Greg's face and felt a familiar cold choking him; it was the feeling he got every time he remembered how close he had come to losing him.
Tentatively, he reached out for Greg's hand but jumped as his cell phone rang.
"Stokes," he answered quietly.
"Hey, Nick, how's Greg?" Warrick's smooth voice sounded on the other end.
"He just woke up," Nick replied. "But he was in pain and the nurse gave him something so he's out again."
"Yeah, it'll probably be a while before he's up to talking to us," Warrick conceded.
"Why would he need to talk?" demanded Nick at once.
"Because we haven't found Alex Hanley yet," Warrick reminded him.
"You can find Hanley without Greg."
"Maybe, but…" Warrick hesitated and Nick felt apprehension.
"But, what, Warrick? What's going on?"
"We think you might have been right about the FBI being involved. One of those guys we arrested told us that Providskey received a phone call suggesting they use Greg to force you to steal the plans."
"What!" Nick exploded and then hastily lowered his voice. "Did they say who?"
"No. They claim they don't know who it was. Only Providskey talked to the mole and he never revealed their identity."
"If he even knew who it was," Nick muttered angrily. "So if his guys don't know, why would you think Greg would?"
"We don't. But the FBI still want to speak with him."
"Of course they do," said Nick bitterly. "Why would they care about what he's just been through!"
"Nick, I know Greg's been through a lot, but he's still a witness. The FBI need his help to track down the person responsible."
Nick wasn't listening, he now had another fear. "Is Greg in danger?"
He heard Warrick hesitate before answering. "We don't know. Brass is sending an officer to the hospital just in case."
Nick swore loudly. "What if Greg can't ID the guy and we don't find him but he comes after him anyway?"
"If Greg can't ID him, then it's unlikely the guy would come after him," said Warrick soothingly.
But Nick wasn't willing to take any chances. "That's not good enough! Warrick, we need to find this guy!"
The fear in Nick's voice was palpable and Warrick tried to reassure him. "Don't worry, Nick, we'll find him."
Warrick sighed as he disconnected the call.
"How'd he take it?" asked Catherine, looking up at him from where she had been studying the photos of the first crime scene.
"He wasn't exactly thrilled about it," said Warrick dryly.
"I don't blame him," said Catherine. "It's not exactly a comforting thought that someone from the FBI may be in with these guys. Did he say how Greg was?"
"He's still out," replied Warrick, returning his attention to the pictures spread out on the table.
"Hey, Warrick, do you think Nick has been acting a little strange?"
"Strange?" he repeated uncomfortably, his heart sinking. Warrick had not spoken of Nick's past to anyone since the night they found Greg…even to Nick. Unfortunately, the Texan's actions were causing much fevered muttering in the lab, and Warrick didn't like the questions that were being asked because he didn't want to be the one who was forced to answer them.
He surveyed Catherine's suspicious expression with dismay.
"Yeah," she replied, her brow furrowing as she looked at Warrick. "You don't think so?"
Warrick shrugged. "Hadn't really thought about it."
Catherine straightened up at once. "You know something, don't you?"
"I can tell when you're lying, Warrick. What's going on with Nick?"
Warrick sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Look, Cath, it's not my business. You really need to talk to Nick."
"Catherine, please don't put me in this position!"
They were both staring at one another uncomfortably when Grissom walked in.
"Hey, Griss what's up?" asked Warrick at once, the relief in his tone evident.
"We may have something," Grissom replied.
"Great!" exclaimed Warrick enthusiastically. "Anything that'll help solve this case."
Catherine, however, noticed his disturbed expression. "Gil, what is it?"
"You know that Ecklie had Days search Alex Hanley's apartment?"
Catherine and Warrick both nodded.
"They found a card with Agent Kramer's contact details on it. But the print they lifted from the card wasn't his."
"So whose was it?" asked Catherine.
"The print belonged to Agent Dobkins."
Just over an hour later, Brass was seated in an interrogation room with Agent Dobkins sitting across from him. Although he had banned Grissom and the other CSI's from having anything to do with the interrogation, they were gathered in the next room watching in grim-faced silence.
Nick had joined them. Having established that Greg was indeed going to be alright and was likely to be out of it for several more hours, he had left the hospital to get answers for the events of the past week. But his stiff, angry stance and rigid expression created a sense of deep foreboding inside Warrick who was watching his friend carefully. He hoped he would be able to keep Nick from doing or saying anything stupid that may betray his secret or cost him his job.
Inside the room, Brass was staring at the woman with a sense of deepest loathing while she smiled back at him with an expression of pained understanding.
"Do you know why you're here?" he demanded, trying hard to keep his tone neutral.
"I have a good idea. But why don't you tell me what you know?"
"I'm not here to tell you what I know. I'm here to ask questions about what I don't know!" snapped Brass.
"So ask," she said simply.
"Why did you give Agent Kramer's contact details to Alex Hanley? Don't try to deny it, we found your prints on a card in his apartment."
"So that's how you knew it was me," she sighed. "I never expected him to keep that card once he made contact with Ryan Kramer."
"Why'd you give it to him?" Brass asked again, through gritted teeth.
"Alex Hanley worked for Providskey and Kramer was a dirty agent; they were a match made in heaven. It was also a means to get to Providskey."
"Why did you need to get to Providskey?"
"He was a terrorist and he had to be stopped," she replied, shrugging carelessly.
"What about the usual methods? You know, investigation, interrogation and surveillance…"
She gave a harsh barking laugh. "Do you know how many years I've been watching Providskey, just waiting for a chance to catch him in the act? Nearly eleven years, Detective Brass, eleven years without a single chance at catching the guy! That's a long time to wait."
"If you wanted him that badly, why didn't you go to Hanley yourself and contact Providskey through him?"
"Because I had no mark on my record, and Kramer already had several underworld connections. He was far more believable than me because he meant it; the greedy little scumbag was willing to sell those nuclear plans for a nice little sum for himself. All I had to do was plant the suggestion in his head, give Hanley his details - disguised as someone other than myself of course - and they gave birth to their foul little plot! It was the perfect means to lure Providskey out, I thought he was sure to be at the drop where I could get him."
"You were there?" demanded Brass.
"I was in the vicinity."
"You let Hanley murder two men in cold blood and nearly take off with those plans?!!"
For the first time, Agent Dobkins looked regretful. "No one was meant to get hurt, least of all your CSI. I really am sorry about that."
"Then what the hell was all this about?" snapped Brass, his anger and frustration clearly showing for the first time. "Four people are dead, the plans to a nuclear bomb that could destroy the country nearly made it into the hands of terrorists and an innocent man was tortured for those plans, which he knew nothing about! Now start talking, why the hell was Providskey so important to you?"
"I think you need to hear this story from the beginning, Detective," she smiled sadly. "It goes back nearly fourteen years to when I was a just a rookie."
Brass looked utterly bemused and from behind the glass, Nick cracked his knuckles in anger. Did this woman think this was some joke? People had gotten hurt!
"Cool it, Nick!" hissed Warrick, sensing his agitation.
Nick barely heeded him, his eyes glued to the woman in the next room. The woman who had instigated a chain of events that had nearly killed someone very important to him.
Agent Dobkins gave a heavy sigh before starting her story. "Life was perfect for me back then; I had graduated top of my class and was excelling as an agent. My boss had already told me that I had a bright career ahead of me…and I was engaged to a wonderful man."
"I didn't ask for your life story," Brass interrupted. "Get to the point."
"My life story is where this starts!" she hissed angrily. "Christof Providskey took it from me!"
She sat back in her chair, breathing heavily. "Fourteen years ago, a team of scientists from New York created a biological weapon the likes of which had never been seen before. It was an airborne virus that rendered anyone who had not received immunisation temporarily paralysed. The possibilities for warfare, or even everyday police work, were immense, and as there were no other after affects, the virus seemed a no consequence way of maintaining peace. The Military showed particular interest in it of course, and paid for much of the research."
She shook her head sadly. "It turned out they were wrong about the after affects; within months, test subjects started dying of heart disease. Further investigation revealed a massive wastage of tissue and muscle within a short period of time. One scientist in particular, Dr. Tom Miller, probed further and discovered that once the muscle wastage appeared, it destroyed the heart in just a matter of days, meaning there was no way to stop it."
"Why didn't they discover these side affects when they were creating this virus?" Brass wanted to know.
"Because controlled experiments and the outside world are two different things," Agent Dobkins told him sadly. "The paralysis wore off, but the virus never left the body and exposure to outside viruses such as the common cold caused it to mutate while in the host body, killing it."
"I never heard of this virus," Brass told her. "How come you know so much about it?"
"Because all research into the virus proved fruitless and in 1993, the project was shelved," replied Agent Dobkins. "But not before word of its existence spread among scientific communities…and from there to terrorists."
Agent Dobkins was now very still, an expression of pain on her face. "On August twenty-first, 1994, a group of five men broke into a research facility in Washington DC and took seven scientists hostage. Three of those scientists were part of the original team that had created the virus, which was what the men wanted."
"I still don't see what all this has to do with Providskey," Brass interrupted.
"You will," said Agent Dobkins, bitterly. "I headed the FBI unit assigned to the case after the Government refused to negotiate. After three days, when negotiations broke down, I sent in a sniper team. The men had threatened torture to get the formula out of the scientists and I had no choice. Five of the scientists and four of the terrorists died including Dr. Tom Miller…my fiancée."
Agent Dobkins swallowed hard and looked at the table. "I lost everything that day," she said in a low voice. "And I needed to find out who was responsible. The one terrorist we had captured alive knew very little, and official investigations turned up nothing. Unofficially, I used some underground contacts and discovered who had sent in the terrorists."
"Providskey," said Brass, understanding beginning to dawn. "But without any evidence, you couldn't press any charges."
"I have spent the last eleven years trying to track down the man responsible for Tom's death," she ground out, pain evident in her voice. "It was like chasing a ghost! Then, two years ago at a charity gala, I was introduced to Christof Providskey…the very generous benefactor who had organised the gala! This man, a terrorist who was responsible for the death of five innocent people, was viewed as a pillar of the community! I knew then that I would never be able to get Providskey…not if I played by the rules."
"So you used Agent Kramer to get to him," said Brass.
She nodded. "It wasn't easy. I had to wait for the right opportunity to present itself…"
"…The missile plans," interjected Brass and she nodded.
"Then I had to get Alex Hanley to contact Ryan Kramer and plant the suggestion in Ryan's head. I bugged Ryan's apartment so I would know when he had arranged the meeting and removed it before the department reported him missing."
"And followed him to Vegas," said Brass in disgust. "How did you contact Providskey?"
"I stole Ryan's phone from his body before the police turned up and called Providskey from it. I pretended to be a friend of Ryan's."
"Why did you tell him to use Nick Stokes to get the plans?"
"Because it was the only way to draw Providskey out, and the only way to get Greg Sanders back alive."
"That still doesn't explain why you used Nick. You put his life in danger as well as Greg's."
She sighed. "I used the one person I knew would do anything to get Greg back alive. I played on Mr. Stokes feelings, but I didn't exactly have much of a choice. I'm not proud of what I've done…but I don't regret it either."
Behind the glass, Nick felt his face burn as all his colleagues turned to stare at him. Sara and Catherine looked confused, while pity was written on Warrick's face. Grissom, however, was studying him shrewdly.
"Guys, would you mind heading back to the lab?" he requested. "I'd like a quick word with Nick."
"Sure," replied Sara, with a last uncertain glance at them before she left the room, Warrick and Catherine trailing nervously in her wake.
As the door closed behind them and Grissom turned to face him, Nick felt his heart sink. "Grissom, I…"
His supervisor held up his hand. "How long has this been going on, Nick?"
"Nothing's going on," replied Nick quietly.
"Seriously, Grissom. That bitch" - angrily, Nick gesticulated behind the glass to where Brass was arresting Agent Dobkins - "was right about my…feelings for Greg. But I swear, nothing ever happened."
Grissom took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I guess this explains your actions somewhat. What are you going to do next?"
"What do you mean?"
"About Greg! Does he know?"
Nick shook his head. "I think it's best he doesn't. He's been through enough without me dropping this bombshell on him."
"Greg's not stupid, Nick," said Grissom quietly. "When he hears the full story about what happened, he will put two and two together…Don't you think it would be best if he heard it from you?"
His shoulders were still throbbing painfully when Greg woke in the hospital room for the second time. Groaning, he opened his eyes to find a doctor hovering over him.
"Ah, Mr. Sanders, you're awake. Good. How do you feel?" asked the doctor cheerfully.
"Hurts," Greg croaked out.
The doctors cheerful smile disappeared at once. "Still? Dear, dear, I'd better up your Morphine again."
As he reached to the tray beside the bed and started to fill a syringe, Greg noticed an officer standing in the doorway. Greg vaguely remembered seeing him around the halls of LVPD but didn't know him personally. He wondered what he was doing there. And where was Nick? He had said he wouldn't leave.
"Here we go," muttered the doctor, breaking his musings as he entered the contents of the syringe into his line. "We had hoped to take your painkillers down a little but it's obviously too soon."
"Oh," muttered Greg, unsure what else to say.
"If you need anything, just call for the nurse, okay?" the doctor told him quietly before trotting out of the room.
Left alone, Greg found his thoughts returning to Nick. His mind no longer clouded by fear or pain, Greg was now starting to question why his kidnappers had called on Nick when Grissom had said no. More to the point, Nick had acted. Why?
The answer that popped into his head caused a little bubble of hope to form. He had spent so many years hoping that Nick felt the same way-
No! You're only seeing what you want to see!
Greg gave a bitter laugh. It couldn't be that, it had to be something else. But then he remembered Christof's words…You are as valuable as I thought, little fish…to Mr. Stokes at least.
Greg was bewildered. All the points led to one conclusion; but he had known Nick for years and he was straight. Wasn't he?
Another memory nudged its way into Greg's mind; Nick holding his hand, twinning his fingers with his.
Frowning, he shook his head. No way could that have happened!
He was just beginning to wonder if had suffered brain damage when a soft voice interrupted his musings. "Greg?"
Nick stood in the doorway, looking tired and nervous.
"Hey," Greg greeted him, uncomfortably aware that his heart monitor had gone up a notch.
Nick moved to the chair beside the bed and sat down. "How're you feeling?"
"Sore," Greg admitted. "Nick, what happened?"
His eyes on the floor, Nick recited the events of the past week. There was silence when he finished and he chanced a quick look at Greg.
The young lab tech was watching him with a bewildered expression on his face.
"Greg, you okay?"
"Yeah, but…I don't understand. Why did you do that? Why did you go to all that trouble…for me?"
Nick's heart sank. He had expected the question, but part of him had hoped Greg wouldn't ask it.
"Greg, I need to tell you something, and it might be a little hard for you to hear."
The younger man looked worried now. "Okay."
Nick exhaled and ran his hands over his face. "This all started when I was a teenager," he tried to explain and then stopped, frowning in frustration. This was a million times harder then telling the story to Warrick. The CSI groaned miserably. He's gonna hate me when I tell him.
Greg was looking at him expectantly. "Nick?"
The Texan sighed. "This isn't easy for me to tell, Greg. I need to ask you just to listen until I'm done."
"Okay. Sorry," Greg apologised meekly.
"No! Don't apologise." Just don't hate me when I'm done, he added silently.
Slowly, quietly, and without looking at Greg, Nick told him the story of what had happened to him as a teenager. When he finished, he kept his gaze fixed on the floor as silence filled the room.
It was a long time before Greg spoke. "Nick, I'm sorry," he said quietly.
There was pity in his voice and Nick looked up. Greg was watching him with an expression of kindness and sorrow, and a hint of something else he couldn't quite place his finger on.
"I haven't told you everything," Nick admitted in a small voice.
"Take your time," Greg told him gently.
Nick looked away again. "After what happened to Jerry, I pretended I wasn't gay. I spent years telling myself that until…until something happened that frightened me even more than being gay."
Nick swallowed hard. His heart was hammering madly in his chest, and he could tell by Greg's heart monitor that his was beating faster than normal too. "The night you were taken hostage at the crime scene, I blamed myself. It was my fault, I didn't follow protocol and I didn't behave very professionally after Hanley forced you to drive my truck. I thought it was because I felt so guilty about what happened, but then the FBI got involved and it looked like we wouldn't be able to get you back and I got…I got really scared."
Nick chanced a look at Greg. The other man was very still and watching Nick with a strange expression on his face.
Nick gulped and took a deep breath. "After we got the first phone call from Providskey, I realised that my feelings ran a little deeper than guilt. And you have no idea how much that scared me, Greg, to finally admit that to myself, but there was something else that scared me even more…losing you."
Greg's jaw dropped as Nick looked him straight in the face. "I'll understand if you hate me, Greg, or if you feel really weird around me. But I just wanted you to know how sorry I am for what happened, and how much…how much I care about you."
Greg's look of shock vanished, and to Nick's utter confusion, his face broke into a beaming smile.
"Why would I hate you?"
"Nick, you've just told me the one thing that I've been hoping you'd say for years!"
Now it was Nick's turn to look astonished. "I…what?"
"I've always liked you, Nick," Greg told him gently. "But there was no way I thought you'd ever return the feeling so I kept quiet."
"You…do?" A host of emotions were running through Nick; happiness, confusion, fear, relief and apprehension.
Greg couldn't believe this was happening. His heart was pounding with fear and happiness, and his head was spinning dizzily. Just to hear Nick say that to him had made the pain and fear of the last week worth it.
"I don't…I don't know what to do next," Nick confessed. He had expected Greg to yell at him and regard him with disgust…but not this. He wasn't prepared for this.
"I do," said Greg softly, holding out his hand to Nick. "We take things slowly."
Nick stared at the proffered hand for a minute before slowly reaching out and grasping it with his own. He felt a warmth spread through him and a feeling of belonging, of being home; as if his own soul had suddenly found what it had been looking for all along.
A smile stole over his face as he stared back at the soft brown eyes fixated on him. The weight of the past melted away, and he could see his future opening up in front of him. Never again would Nick feel afraid of who he was.
Slowly, he reached out and ran a hand down Greg's face. "We take things slowly," he repeated, enjoying the intimacy of the soft caress. "We have forever to get where we're going."
A/N: Here's the final chapter. I'm sorry for the long wait. All I can do is plead life, work and a deficient ending to the story; it was nothing short of TORTURE to finish this. Lisa, I took up your challange but never again will I write such a thing. I'm lousy at writing romance and even worse at writing slash (as the abominable, saccharine sweet ending to this story will testify). I'll leave it to the experts in furture!
But I would please ask that anyone who reads this take a little time to review. This story (and in particular this chapter) was a labour of blood, sweet, tears and many (MANY) temper tantrums! I may not have quite nailed the challange but I did give it my best shot, and I'm hoping you'll forgive me in that. Thank you. :-)