Altruism - by Sara's Girl
Summary: Set in S2, after 'You've Got Male'. Sara's determined to get a life outside of work, but she doesn't want to do it alone. Features a slightly snarky Nick, a somewhat oblivious Greg-who-cannot-cook (of course), and plenty of fluff. My half of mine and liquidlatex's prompt challenge. Our prompt was: 'It's just one afternoon. What's the worst that can happen? Very long oneshot, but hey...go with it.
AN – this is pretty shameless pre-slash fluff. It's long, and a bit of a slow-burn, but hopefully worth it. Thanks to liquidlatex who encouraged, cajoled, kicked and poked me until I finished this story.
I don't own CSI. I don't own Seinfeld, or the Soup Nazi. Nor do I own Friends, from which I semi-borrowed the idea of the truly selfless good deed. The story, however is mine, and so are Keith, Suzi, Laurel and Jerry.
Incidentally, whilst doing some research for this story (yes, I do research, like the geek that I am) I found out that the Las Vegas authorities banned soup kitchens in 2006. But, I figure we're in 2002 so it's all good :)
I'd love you to review, if you want to, comments motivate and delight me like nothing else. Yes please!
"It's just one afternoon. What's the worst that can happen?" Sara raises an eyebrow and waits.
Greg should have known from the look on Sara's face when she walked into the DNA lab, but he was distracted by the mountain of samples on his desk and missed it, and now it seems it's too late. He knows from bitter experience that once Sara Sidle is locked in on a target, she is nigh on impossible to deflect. Especially when she's on a mission. Greg sighs and abandons his studious examination of the sample under his microscope.
"Just one afternoon. Right. But Sara, let me get this straight. You're having some kind of existential crisis, therefore you need me to come downtown with you on a Saturday afternoon to give soup to homeless people?"
"I'm not having an existential crisis, Greggo. I'm getting a life. Outside of work."
"Because of the existential crisis," mumbles Greg under his breath, leaning right back in his chair and looking at the ceiling rather than looking at Sara.
She sits down heavily on his spare stool and clears her throat, obviously uncomfortable with the vulnerability she's about to display. "That case freaked me out, ok? We had the same catalogues, the same takeout menus, the same social life...or lack thereof. I don't want that to be me."
Greg doesn't know how great he is at reassurance, but something in Sara's tone makes him give it a go.
"You're nothing like that girl...the victim." He pauses. "She didn't even leave the house. Her only social interaction was with the convicted felon who sold her homewares over the phone." Greg flicks his eyes back to his friend, suddenly amused. "You do spend a lot of time talking to criminals, though."
Sara pulls a face. "Very funny. Look, the point is, I need to get a life. I want to do something worthwhile with my time that has nothing to do with this place."
Greg thinks he knows when he's beaten, but it doesn't stop him from bringing out the last-resort tactics.
"And what do I have to do with your getting a life?" he challenges. "'Cause you know, unless it involves you, me and a bottle of mineral oil, chances are I'm not interested."
Greg shifts position to lean his elbows on the desk and raise both eyebrows suggestively, underlining his comment. If he knows nothing else, he knows that hitting on Sara is usually the easiest way to flush her out of his lab. He bites the inside of his mouth hard in his attempt to keep himself from laughing.
It's no good, anyhow, because Sara either sees straight through him or doesn't even care, it's hard to tell.
"Stop trying to distract me. I don't want to do this on my own. And it seems that...um...you know, with the whole...needing to get a life thing, I don't exactly have armies of friends to ask."
"You know how to make a guy feel special, Ms Sidle," Greg observes drily.
She rolls her eyes. "Come on, Greg. It's good to give back."
"Give back? What for? What have the homeless of Las Vegas ever done for me?" It sounds stroppy, and he knows it. He also knows that stroppy isn't exactly an attractive look on him, but he's tired, there's a horrifying amount of work to be done before he can go home, and more than anything, he doesn't like to lose.
"That's not very charitable, Greggo," she admonishes.
"I'm not feeling charitable, Sara. I've had a very bad day, ok?"
She smiles ingratiatingly and leans on his desk. "Come on, you know what I mean, anyway. I know you're a nice guy, Greg. Usually," she adds. "You're doing this with me."
He sighs heavily and swings from side to side on his chair, frowning. He still asks, even though he already knows he's going to give in. Sara's always been able to persuade him to do pretty much anything she wants, and he knows that she knows that. "Or else what?"
Sara's smile turns slightly predatory then, and Greg freezes, looking into glinting dark eyes with alarm. For a split second, he's grateful that his lab has glass walls. There are potential witnesses everywhere.
"Or else...I'll find out who you secretly like and tell them that interesting thing I found out about you last week."
"I don't secretly like anyone, Sara," he attempts, resisting the temptation to add 'except you' just to infuriate her.
"Sure you don't. Well, I'll just have to tell everyone, then."
"Try me." Sara holds eye contact, unblinking. Greg folds.
"Fine. Count me in."
"Excellent doing business with you, Greggo. Noon, Saturday, ok? I've drawn you a map. The place is called Nova. You should be able to park across the street."
She produces a scrap of paper with a rudimentary street sketch scrawled on it and flashes him a smile before disappearing out of the lab and down the corridor with long, determined Sidle strides.
Greg leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. Because of course he's working Friday night, and of course he'll now have a massive three hours sleep before joining Sara in her new quest to get a life by feeding soup to the homeless of Las Vegas. Marvellous.
Standing outside an unassuming concrete building at 11.50am the following Saturday morning, sleep-deprived and shivering against the unexpected February cold snap, Greg reflects that perhaps he's a bit of a pushover. The pot of very strong coffee he drank to himself before he set off has fortified him somewhat, but there's only so much caffeine can do. It's no substitute for sleep at the end of a long week. He's still not quite sure how Sara managed to get out of him that he was...let's say, a late developer when it came to girls, but she did, and the last thing he needs is everyone else in the lab knowing about it too. He works hard to cultivate his reputation as a man of experience, and there is no way he is risking one Sara Sidle shattering that, however idle her threats might be.
The way he sees it, they all have an image, a role to play. Grissom is the guy who knows everything. Catherine is the mother figure, though she would probably kill Greg for even thinking that. Nick is the straitlaced good guy. Sara is the workaholic, and he doubts that is about to change, altruism or no altruism. Warrick is the cool guy, the player. Jacqui is the-one-who-must-not-be-crossed. That's just how it is. And he, of course, he is the sex expert. Different partner every week, try anything once, more-kinks-than-an-afro-Sanders. It doesn't matter if it's true or not, just that everyone thinks it is.
Greg shakes his head and pushes open the heavy, creaking reinforced glass door, deciding that pushover or not, he needs to get in out of the cold. With that thought comes an unexpected pang of realization that the people who come to a place like this probably spend all their nights out in the cold, and it is with renewed determination that he steps inside. The hallway is short, dark and smells like disinfectant. Greg wrinkles his nose, rubber soled shoes squeaking on the polished concrete floor. He pulls open the only other door and walks out into a surprisingly bright, clean space that reminds him instantly of a school cafeteria, only on a much smaller scale.
Hanging back in the doorway a moment, Greg takes in the small collection of tables and plastic chairs, the only slightly peeling pale blue paint on the walls, the long, stainless steel counter that sparkles with scratches under the harsh winter sun streaming in from a large, propped-open sash window. The room is empty, but he smells coffee brewing and can hear someone banging about through another door just out of his line of sight. He hadn't planned on being early, in fact Greg is rarely early for anything, but today would be the exception, and he feels unexpectedly nervous. Perhaps it's because punctuality is Sara's strong point, and she is nowhere to be seen, as yet.
"Hello?" he calls out uncertainly, taking another step into the room and examining the flurry of brightly coloured flyers pinned to the notice board next to him on the wall.
Shelters. Helplines. Outreach programmes across the city. Why not be a volunteer? Call 555-3490.
He smiles ruefully. Why not indeed, Sara Sidle, he thinks. Wherever you are.
"Hi, what can I do for you?"
Greg looks around, startled, at the man crossing the room towards him. He wipes his hands on a checked towel and flicks it over his shoulder, holding out a hand to Greg, which he shakes hesitantly.
"I'm Keith," he continues, when it's clear that Greg, for once in his life, isn't going to say anything. "Owner, proprietor, general dogsbody. Some say I run the place."
Keith smiles and Greg eyes him appraisingly as he starts to speak. Mid-forties, he thinks. Slightly long, dirty-blond hair. Self-consciously trendy facial hair. Kind eyes, though, Greg thinks. Warm. He looks like he's dressed for adversity, jeans and a worn, navy fleece. Perhaps he is.
"No need to look so nervous," he says, and Greg flinches. Accurate though the man might be, he'd rather it wasn't so obvious.
"I'm not nervous," he grins. "Just never been in one of these places before. But hey, I'm here to help. Giving back, all that, you know..." Greg shrugs and rolls his eyes inwardly at his inner Sara. "What do you want me to do?"
Keith raises an eyebrow, but he smiles and turns away, indicating for Greg to follow him.
"Welcome to Nova, Greg." He looks over his shoulder and grins somewhat sheepishly. "Soupanova."
Greg tries to groan, but somehow it comes out as a soft laugh, and he follows Keith into the kitchen, sniffing hopefully at the air as the aroma of coffee intensifies. It's a small, sparsely equipped room, but it's warm, and Greg's tired eyes immediately fall on the coffee pot currently being wielded by a small, plump black woman dressed in bright, clashing colours and, he notes, a pair of lime green Converse just like the pair he has at home.
"Our regular volunteers," Keith says, nodding at the woman, who looks up and smiles at Greg. "This is Suzi. Suzi, Greg. He's new."
Suzi rakes inscrutable dark eyes over him, and he gets the uncomfortable feeling he is being assessed in some way. He shifts on the spot and flashes what he hopes is an appealing smile. Seemingly satisfied, she nods and asks him how he takes his coffee. Greg exhales with something like relief and accepts the steaming mug, looking around the room and half-listening to Keith as he explains how the place works.
"...expecting a lady called Sara, she's new too. Said she'd be bringing a couple of friends along." Greg looks up at the mention of Sara's name and opens his mouth to say something when the back door to the kitchen crashes open and the person half-stumbling into the room, laden with plastic grocery bags, steals Greg's attention, and his breath. Nick Stokes. "...and here's Nick, another regular," says Keith. Nick dumps his bags onto the counter and turns to face them.
"Nick, this is – "
"Greggo," Nick cuts him off, face unreadable, but Greg thinks he sounds slightly amused, and it sends an irrational wriggle of irritation through his stomach.
"I, um...didn't expect to see you here," Greg mutters. Unimpressed, but not sure why.
"You know each other?" Keith cuts in.
"We work together," Greg replies without turning to face the older man. "With Sara, who is late."
Nick stares at Keith and waits for a moment. Greg's not sure what he's waiting for, but when it comes, he fancies he can actually hear the other shoe dropping.
"Sara, who's not supposed to know you've been here before..." Keith sighs. "Subterfuge isn't my strong point, Nick, I'm sorry."
"You're telling me," snorts Suzi from somewhere behind Greg, and he turns to look at her briefly, wishing he knew exactly what was going on and why he seems to have temporarily stepped into a low-rent farce.
"I didn't know you were coming," Nick says, addressing Greg through gritted teeth. Greg thinks he looks, just for a moment, as though he's been carved out of stone, and inconveniently beautiful. He shakes his head slightly, convulsively, dispelling that thought. Not helpful.
"Likewise," Greg replies, jamming his hands into his pockets, defensive. Sara is in so much trouble when she gets here.
"So, let me get this straight..." Suzi begins, but she is cut off.
"This is all kinds of crazy." They turn as one to regard Keith, who is rubbing his temples with a pained expression. "How about we just make some soup, and if and when Sara gets here, no one will tell her anything. Ok?"
Fine, Greg thinks. Good. Excellent. For approximately half a second.
"No one will tell me anything about what?" Four sets of eyes swivel as one to the doorway. "Sorry I'm late."
Greg really, really wishes he was still in bed.
Ten minutes later, it's closer to a prayer, despite that fact that Greg doesn't even believe in God. Explanations, introductions and apologies all squared away, Keith is setting up out front. Suzi and Sara are buttering bread and swapping workplace anecdotes; from what Greg can hear, the smaller woman is a divorce lawyer, and more uncomfortably, he can also hear that a good proportion of Sara's stories seem to involve him doing something embarrassing. Sighing inwardly, he turns away from their conversation and watches Nick as he unloads the contents of the numerous bags out onto the counter.
Leans back against the sink and observes his hands, large but dextrous, strong fingers and wrists, sinews twisting and flexing in his forearms, clearly visible under the tanned, lightly haired skin as he moves. The charcoal grey of Nick's plain sweater looks good against his skin, sleeves pushed up around his elbows, and for once, left loose, not tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Maybe because it's Saturday, Greg thinks idly, crossing his arms across his chest and continuing to watch, silent. Nick's face is still, unlined, strong features impassive, but Greg can sense his tension nonetheless and he can't help wondering what it's all about.
Of course, he's not used to seeing Nick outside of the lab, and he knows as well as anyone that a person out of context is a strange, unpredictable thing, but all the same...the Nick Stokes he knows is relaxed and friendly and easygoing. In fact, now Greg thinks about it, the Nick Stokes he knows is exactly the kind of man who would give up his Saturday afternoons to help the less fortunate. The man in front of him, now methodically balling up plastic bags, is both intriguing and disconcerting all at once. And hot, his treacherous brain adds. Greg bites his lip. And hot, he concedes, but that's beside the point.
"Why?" he asks at last, and Nick looks up abruptly.
Why are you acting like an ass? Greg wants to ask, but he resists. "Why didn't you want Sara to know you already did this?"
"Because I didn't want to ruin her mission. You know, getting a life and dragging everyone else along with her."
Greg stares, nonplussed.
"She sounded so excited, talking about doing this, and it was so unlike her...she'd asked Cath and 'Rick, they didn't have time, and Gris, well..." Nick frowns and shrugs. "Who knows what excuse Gris came up with, anything to avoid actual social interaction. By the time she told me it was this place, she was already so pleased to have talked me into it, that I...I didn't want to ruin it," he repeats, rubbing the back of his neck fitfully.
"How very noble of you." Greg rolls his eyes and tells himself he's not impressed.
Who does Nick think he is anyway? Greg's eyes are sore and he doesn't feel any better since the coffee, which he is now beginning to suspect is de-caf. Nick is still staring at him, like he's trying to pin him to the spot. Greg shifts uncomfortably under the suddenly intense gaze.
"Come on, Greg, why are you really here?"
"Because Sara made me," Greg admits at last, looking away.
"Forced into voluntary work. There's an irony." Nick shakes his head, looking oddly disappointed. "If Sara says jump, right?"
Unable to identify the tone streaking Nick's words but feeling the uncharacteristic hostility, Greg reacts.
"What the hell is your problem, Stokes?" He pushes off the sink unit, face flushed, voice lowered so as not to attract the attention of Sara and Suzi. "Why the fuck does it matter why I'm here? I doubt the homeless care what my motivation is."
They stare at each other for a while, and Greg can't help wondering where this sudden animosity has come from. He occasionally gets the feeling, in the lab, that some of the CSIs only tolerate him, and he knows some people find him irritating, but Nick...they've always gotten along. He can't understand it. And when did Nick get so holier-than-thou? Sure, he's always been one of the good guys; that much is obvious, but this Nick just seems spiteful and superior and not like Nick at all. Greg suddenly finds he misses his co-worker's bright, easy smiles like an ache.
Turning his back to Nick, Greg turns on the tap and scrubs at his hands and fingernails with scalding hot water and liquid soap and more aggression than is strictly necessary. He has no idea why it matters so much, but Nick's disapproval stings, and he doesn't like it.
"...are you kidding me? She got half of everything!" Suzi is saying at the other end of the kitchen, Sara laughing. He can hear loud metallic scraping from the other room as Keith does...whatever it is he does, Greg wasn't really paying attention when Keith told him. People turn up, they serve soup. He's pretty sure he can figure the rest of it out by himself.
The water is still running, and he's staring down at his puckered fingertips without really seeing them when a warm arm reaches around him and turns the tap off. Greg's not actually sure how long he has been standing there, but he takes the rough teatowel Nick passes him and dries his hands in silence.
"I'm sorry, Greg." Nick's tone is soft, if a little strained, and Greg suddenly wants to smile, but he fights it.
"S'ok," Greg replies quietly. He turns to face Nick again and leans back on the counter, resting his weight on his hands.
"I guess I don't react well to surprises," he offers. Greg bites back the 'no kidding' on the tip of his tongue, because he knows that won't help the situation one bit. "I'd got used to the idea of Sara being here, but I wasn't...prepared for you."
Greg stares into the familiar cocoa-dark eyes and watches them flicker uncertainly, just for a moment. He wants to ask, but decides against it, opting instead for his fail-safe option. Deflection.
"No one's ever prepared for me, Nick. It's part of the unique Sanders charm." He quirks an eyebrow and Nick's resulting smile is the first genuine one he's seen from the older man all day.
"So, what do we do now?" Greg pushes up his sleeves and looks at Nick expectantly.
"We make soup, Greg," Nick replies slowly, trying not to smile. He gestures towards the counter, and Greg follows it with his eyes, noticing, as though for the first time, the assortment of vegetables laid out in front of him. The ones he watched Nick unpack not ten minutes ago. He blinks.
"We make it? As in...from scratch?!" Greg is incredulous.
Nick is clearly amused, and the fact that he is trying to hide it, is not helping at all.
"What did you think we did here, G? The clue's in the name."
Greg pouts lightly and slides his hands back into his jeans pockets. "I don't know. Packets? Cans?" He shrugs. "I knew we were serving it, I didn't think we'd be making it."
"No. It's cheaper this way," Nick explains. "Some of the big stores give their unsold veg to Keith...he has a standing arrangement with them. It's not like there's a lot of cash to spare."
"Makes sense," Greg says faintly. He wonders if perhaps Keith told him that, when he wasn't listening. Probably. He hates feeling stupid, and resolves to keep his mouth shut on all matters soup-related for the time being.
"There were a lot of carrots today," Nick is saying, holding out a pot of assorted utensils. Greg hopes for the best and selects the one that looks most like a vegetable peeler. "It's kinda luck of the draw really, so we'll go with it. If you do the carrots, I'll do the potatoes and onions. We've got just under an hour until the doors open."
"Right," Greg says, wielding the peeler with false confidence. He eyes the mountain of carrots with suspicion and, when Nick's back is turned, he scowls at them. It's like with dogs, he tells himself. You have to show them who's boss.
"I am your master, orange vegetable," he says stridently, raising one eyebrow like a Bond villain. "I will scrape you and then...um...slice you, finely."
"Roughly will be fine, Greggo," comes Nick's voice from behind him, unsteady with amusement.
Greg closes his mouth and starts scraping.
Making soup is easy, Greg decides, as he stirs the huge pot of simmering liquid, watching cubes of carrot and potato swimming in hot stock. He can do it.
"Greg...you're cooking," observes an astonished Sara from across the room. She looks up from inexpertly slicing cabbage and just about misses slicing off the tip of her finger.
"So are you," he points out, adding a somewhat theatrical stir and grinning at her. "Sort of."
She pokes out her tongue briefly and turns back to Suzi.
Impulsively, Greg tastes the soup and decides it needs something...something...he casts his eyes over the untidy counter-top and pokes at a sprig of something. Shrugs and turns to Nick.
"Should I put some green stuff in?"
"Green stuff, Greg?"
"Yes." He picks it up and twirls the stem between thumb and forefinger. "This."
Nick laughs. "That's coriander."
"Ok. Should I put some coriander in?" Greg rephrases, impatient.
"Don't you want to know what you're adding? Here..." Nick plucks off a leaf and crushes it between finger and thumb, grinding the soft leaf against his skin until it's almost a pulp. Holding it up underneath Greg's nose. "Coriander. Smell."
Greg shuts his eyes, inhales sharply and lets the distinctive, cool, earthy aroma invade his nostrils. He recognises it, of course, but would never have connected the fragrance with the plant. Suddenly aware of how close Nick is standing, and though Greg's eyes are closed, he knows Nick's are on him. Fingers so close to Greg's face that they are almost touching his skin, not quite but he can feel the heat against his upper lip. Knows his hot, quickened breath is tracing Nick's fingertips, strangely sensual and intimate and...what?
Snapping his eyes open, Greg fights for his composure and his equilibrium. This makes no sense at all, and there's no way he is going to allow himself to be thrown off balance by Nick Stokes in a soup kitchen.
"Coriander," repeats Greg, breathing shakily. "It's still green stuff," he mutters softly, resisting the temptation to touch his heated face. Nick smiles and says nothing.
Greg stands behind the pot of carrot and coriander soup with quiet pride and looks down the counter at his new colleagues. Suzi is leaning over, resting on her elbows on the surface as she converses at length with a serious looking young woman with a small child in tow, chewing on a bread roll. He smiles, watching Sara hand out the hot soup she and Suzi made, an uncertain but determined look on her face.
"Carrot or winter veg?" Nick asks a painfully thin teenage girl with dark curly hair and hard eyes. Her hands are in her coat pockets and she stares suspiciously at Nick.
"The carrot's better," Greg advises. Her eyes snap to him and he smiles and shrugs. "I made this one. She can't cook," he stage-whispers, jerking his thumb in Sara's direction.
"I heard that, Greggo," she points out, staring balefully at him. He grins and the girl says nothing but indicates that she wants carrot soup, and Greg is elated.
"Good decision." He ladles the thick orange liquid into the Styrofoam cup Nick passes him, and hands it over. "Bread's at the end."
Greg watches her shuffle over to the end of the counter, where Keith holds a somewhat one-sided conversation with her and supplies her with a bread roll. He's clearly in his element, completely comfortable with whatever level of interaction each new patron offers him, switching between joking, sympathy and serious discussion with mind-blowing ease. Greg wonders how obvious it is to the people in the queue how painfully new to this he and Sara are, compared to the other three.
He stares out at the knot of tables where some people seem to prefer to sit and eat, rather than grabbing the food and leaving. He's surprised at the amount of conversation and laughter. If he's honest, he didn't expect any laughter at all, but he was wrong. It's not that he hasn't seen his share of deadened, miserable faces, defeat and hopelessness etched through each one; but they are not all like that, not by a long stretch. Feeling Nick looking over his shoulder, he turns.
"I didn't expect them to stay," he comments, gesturing over at the tables.
Nick nods. "Might be the only warm place they get to sit all day," he says simply.
Greg swallows hard, his mouth dry. When he glances over at the dark-haired girl, she is devouring the soup quickly and with obvious enjoyment. He smiles and turns to the next person in the queue.
"Carrot or winter veg?"
Greg dries the last pan and looks around for somewhere to place it, opening and closing cupboard doors at random and finding no spaces. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he opens the oven door, shoves the pan inside and slams the door again. He dries his hands and flicks the damp towel over his shoulder with satisfaction. Sara shoots him a look as she shakes off soapy fingers into the sink but does not comment.
His eyes land on Nick, singing softly along with the radio as he expertly mops his way across the worn brown tiles underfoot. Nick can't sing, a discovery that amuses Greg more than it should, but if nothing else, that is a man who looks good with a mop. Greg frowns at his own wayward thoughts, but there's no denying it. The dark-haired man flicks the mop head over the floor with an effortless grace that is almost mesmerising.
Job done, Greg jumps up onto the counter out of the way of Nick's mop and tips his head back, suddenly feeling weary.
He can hear Keith teasing Suzi in the dining room as they stack chairs and sweep up Styrofoam cups, dropped food and assorted detritus. Suzi's laughter is raucous, the kind of laugh that fills and overpowers a small space, warming everything it touches. Greg smiles and secretly concedes that the woman doesn't need caffeine; no wonder she drinks de-caf. Still, it won't do, and he resolves to bring some of the good stuff for next time. He wonders how loud Suzi might get on a couple of cups of Blue Hawaiian.
Next time. As if suddenly registering his own thought, Greg chews on his lower lip pensively. Next time. He wants to do this again. Sara should be delighted.
"My god, that woman is loud," she remarks, cutting into his thoughts.
"I like her," Greg shrugs. Sara pulls the towel from his shoulder and wipes her hands.
"Really?" She smiles wryly.
Greg looses a slightly undignified yelp as Nick's wooden mop handle whacks soundly against his kneecap as he passes. So much for effortless grace, Greg thinks as he rubs his knee.
"Sorry." Nick cringes and lightly, apologetically, touches Greg's denim covered knee.
"It's fine." Greg turns to Sara. "Not like that! She's not my type...I just think she's nice, is all."
Sara's sharp dark eyes bore into him for a moment, and he flushes, though he's not sure why.
"She's married," offers Nick, kicking his bucket across the floor in a practised gesture, scraping metal on tile.
Greg and Sara both stare at him until he looks up, expression unreadable.
"She is." He shrugs and squeezes into the bucket, sending pine-scented steam into the air.
Greg watches the hands gripping the wooden handle for long seconds, before he gives himself a shake and slides back onto his feet. Perhaps it's the disinfectant fumes.
"I'm going home," he announces to the room. "See you Monday."
Nick returns his smile and returns to the last square foot of floor as Greg leaves the room, followed by Sara. Keith's shoulder slap and effusive, genuine thanks as they leave warms Greg and he barely feels the cold as he and Sara stand out in the early evening darkness. Just lingering for a moment.
Sara pulls a knitted hat down over her ears and drags on thick fingerless gloves.
"That was...surreal," she says at last.
Greg laughs, feeling an explosive release of tension he didn't realize he was carrying. "It was that. Soup Kitchen Veteran Stokes, who'd have thought it?"
Sara purses her lips thoughtfully. "I still don't get why he tried to cover it up."
Greg looks away, searching fruitlessly for stars in the night sky, but the lights from the city are too much for them. He watches his breath curl out in front of him in white wisps.
"Do you feel full of the spirit of altruism?" he asks, not looking at her.
"A little. It's a start."
"Well then, it doesn't matter." Greg grins. Stupid noble bastard.
Sara shakes her head and heads for her car. "I don't think I'll ever understand you, Greggo."
"Same time next month, then?" he calls after her.
"Really?" she turns, surprised.
"You...um..." she pauses, looking shamefaced. Fiddles with her keys. "You don't really think I'll tell everyone about your...virginity thing, do you? I wouldn't do that, Greg, not really."
He smiles at her in the dark. If he's honest, he wasn't sure. But equally, if he's honest, that's not why. He had fun today. It felt good to help. He likes Keith and Suzi. He made soup, from actual vegetables. And, much as it pains him to admit it, he's just a little bit intrigued by an outside-of-work Nick Stokes.
"I want to," he says simply. "Same time next month."
The following Saturday however, finds Greg not sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets as planned, but pacing the kitchen at Nova once more. He didn't plan it, not really, it was more of an impulse decision. When he woke just before 11am, Greg stared at his bedroom ceiling for a good ten minutes before getting up, dragging open his blackout blinds, showering, dressing; grabbing coat, keys and coffee and heading downtown. He actually thought about calling Sara, but something stopped him, and now he's here, he's inexplicably nervous.
Keith is surprised and delighted to see him again sooner than expected. Even more surprised and delighted when Greg puts on a pot of Blue Hawaiian and shares it with the older man. He inhales the fragrant steam gratefully and Greg grins, gratified at the obvious enjoyment of a new convert.
As they wait for Nick to turn up with the usual consignment of vegetables, they sit out on the rough concrete steps leading down from the back kitchen door. Greg sips his coffee and swallows luxuriously, waiting for the caffeine to lift him. Looking out over a small, rain-slicked yard, messy with boxes and pallets and trashcans. Listening to the almost-midday traffic racing by on the streets parallel to the yard. It's bright but cold, and Greg shivers.
Keith lights a cigarette and offers one to Greg, who stares for a moment. He doesn't smoke often, and usually it's only when he's had a few beers or is feeling particularly anxious, but something compels him, and he takes one. Lights up and drags the smoke into his lungs hard, pulling his knees up to his chest to keep out the cold as Keith speaks. Greg is listening this time, and it's interesting.
"I've been running Nova for almost fifteen years. Suzi's been coming for almost ten, every weekend. I have others, during the week. Mostly they come and go...we always seem to have a lot of volunteers in January." Keith smiles wryly and flicks ash across the yard. "It's amazing how a New Years' Resolution can make people want to save the world all of a sudden."
"Can't judge," Greg offers, opting for honesty. "I was talked into this by a very persuasive co-worker."
Keith seems to consider this, rubbing his chin with the flat of his hand. "But you came back."
"I did." Greg just smiles. He's still not sure exactly why, but he did, and for some reason, it feels good.
"I'm pleased," Keith says. Thoughtful. "We go out into the parks as well, you know, always have done. The city hates it, they've been trying to shut us down for years. But as long as I'm able, I'm still gonna do it. There isn't enough space in the shelters, you know? Everyone knows that, but no fucker wants to do anything about it." He sighs and exhales a long plume of smoke into the cold air. "Sorry, Greg. You didn't come here to listen to me on my soapbox." Keith grins, and Greg thinks he looks ten years younger just with the change of expression.
"Nah, I'm interested." Greg returns the smile and blows a smoke ring absently.
"I've never been able to do that," remarks Keith, watching him intently.
Greg laughs softly. "Practise," he says, leaning back on the step and doing it again.
Hearing footsteps, Greg looks up to see Nick entering the yard with several heavy-looking bags stretching precariously in his hands. When he sees Greg, he does a double take that is almost comical. He seems guarded, just like he was last Saturday morning, as though all of the barriers have shot back up over the past week. Greg supposes he shouldn't blame Nick. After all, he doesn't like surprises, and Greg imagines that the last thing Nick expected to see this week is him. Even so, the eyes are cool and Greg is strangely disappointed.
"I didn't know you smoked, Greg," Nick says quietly, and there's something about the set of his jaw that unnerves Greg. On the plus side, he's wearing a tight-fitting dark red sweater and it looks good. Greg drags heavily on the last quarter-inch of his cigarette and throws it into the gutter.
"There's a lot of things you don't know about me, Nick."
"Hmm," murmurs Nick. "Keith," he acknowledges with a brief nod and threads between them up the stairs and into the kitchen.
Greg and Keith exchange glances as the radio is flicked on. Loud. And tuned to a country music station.
"You know, I think he's still pissed with me about last week," Keith muses, narrowing intelligent hazel eyes. He is, understandably, nonplussed. "What was that all about?"
When Greg tells him, the older man laughs and shakes his head.
"He's an idiot, right?" finishes Greg, but the accusation lacks bite. Keith twists to watch Nick moving around in the kitchen. Turns back and eyes Greg evenly.
"He chops a good carrot," Keith responds finally. And somewhat cryptically. Touches Greg briefly on the shoulder and strides back into the building.
Greg thinks on that for some time. He rests his chin on rough, denim-covered knees, wraps and unwraps untied shoelaces around his fingers and watches the wind skitter cardboard across the yard.
It's just soup, and people. Soup, and people, and doing good deeds. And a dark-haired co-worker that seems to have taken up residence in Greg's head, whether he likes it or not. He doesn't like it, it's unsettling. Nick Stokes is unsettling him. Greg shakes his head and laughs, a little too loud.
"You came back," Nick says, looking up from his chopping board as Greg enters the kitchen.
"Looks like it," Greg says, uncertain smile softening the sarcasm slightly.
"Thought you and Sara were making this a monthly thing?"
"We are...we were. She is. I..." Greg stops, realizing he's not making a lot of sense. "I wanted to do it again. I had fun." He folds his arms defensively.
"Really?" Nick looks baffled. He looks cute when he's confused, Greg thinks involuntarily. His forehead crinkles slightly and his lips and eyes are soft in mild contemplation.
"Yeah. And you know, it made me feel good. To help people."
"Ah." Nick nods sagely. And knowingly. And Greg knows what he's thinking. Suddenly he feels irritated again.
"You know what? Yeah. Maybe I'm not as selfless as you. Maybe I want to do this because it makes me feel good. Fucking shoot me."
"Greg, I - " Nick holds up a restraining hand, but Greg cuts him off.
"Not everyone's a saint, Nick." He pauses, hearing his own words and feeling a ripple of unintentional amusement, despite his irritation. Nick is smiling too, just slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching. Greg catches his eyes, and they're warm. Finally they both laugh, and it feels like relief. Greg relaxes and leans against the counter top.
"Maybe we should stop being asses to each other. There's no good reason for it."
"Sounds like a plan, Greggo." Nick smiles widely now, that slow, genuine smile that Greg is used to seeing in the lab. He can't help smiling back, and suddenly he's very aware that they are just standing there smiling at each other and not saying anything. He feels warm.
Stepping away, he coughs lightly and retrieves a second chopping board, attacking a large potato with relish. Neither of them speaks, but Greg doesn't mind. He demonstrates his mastery over the humble potato with relative ease, and listens to Nick sing along to a song which, Greg surmises, is about a woman threatening to have their house decorated like a bar so that she might actually see her husband. He still can't sing, but is almost word-perfect, and Greg is biting his tongue so hard in an attempt not to laugh that he draws blood. When Keith leans around the kitchen door and loudly joins in with the final chorus, Greg loses it and snickers into his potatoes.
Nick flushes beautifully at the sound, and looks at Greg as though he's forgotten he was there. Tries to look affronted, but fails miserably, only just restraining the smile and instead focusing hard on lighting the gas ring under Greg's pan. Greg smiles and surveys his work with satisfaction. He might not be a natural in the kitchen, sure, he knows that, but let it not be said that Greg Sanders is not a fast learner.
"You know, there isn't really any such thing as a selfless good deed." Greg looks up at the sound of Nick's voice. "Do you think I'm here because I'm a saint? Come on, G. You know, before you cut me off, I was going to say that I remember the first time I had that feeling that you were talking about. It's kinda...addictive, I guess."
Nick shrugs and smiles and Greg experiences an uncomfortable twist of shame.
That's what you get for judging him for judging you when really no one was judging anyone, Greg admonishes himself. Or something to that effect.
"Yeah, it is," he manages, resisting the temptation to apologise.
"It's just something I've always done. My mom used to take all seven of us to the homeless shelter every Christmas when I was a kid. We used to spend half the morning there, helping out in the kitchens. It just stuck with me."
"It's February, Nick," Greg points out, without agenda. He's actually enjoying hearing about Nick's past.
"I know that." Nick shoots Greg a look and takes his carefully sliced potatoes, sliding them from the chopping board into the boiling water. "I come most weeks, now. But that's how it started."
Greg wipes wet, starchy fingers on his jeans. "Everything has to start somewhere," he says, and as he meets Nick's eyes, something approaching a shiver passes down his spine.
"Sorry I'm late, guys, I think my babysitter thinks punctuality is a communicable disease." Suzi enters the kitchen with the energy of a small whirlwind, effectively breaking the tension. Greg spins around to look at her.
"Hello, Greg, back so soon?" she smiles, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
"Couldn't stay away," he replies absently, watching her face as she takes a sip.
"This coffee is amazing," she sighs. "It's decaf, right?"
"Sure it is." Greg smiles and turns wide, innocent eyes to Nick. He watches a warm flicker of unexpected amusement skate across the guileless face. The mouth twitches and the dark eyes glow, just for a second.
Nick Stokes is one thing. Nick Stokes with a sense of humour could be a dangerous thing. Greg tells himself that the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach is temporary, but he's not so sure.
On the third Saturday, Greg leaves the lab at 8.30am and sets his alarm for eleven, telling himself even as he does it that he's not really doing it. He made no promises the previous week about when would return, but even as he drifts into sleep, he knows it's not about obligation, none of it is.
As he wakes, stretches and dresses finds his thoughts drawn to Sara once more, but this time he feels no guilt whatsoever about going to Nova without her. He has mentioned nothing about his extra visit in the intervening days, and he has no intention of doing so. Greg wonders if perhaps he should feel something, because after all, this whole venture was her idea.
"I'm sorry, Sara. I'm feeding the homeless behind your back," he says soberly, addressing his reflection in the mirrored closet door.
Mirror Greg arches an eyebrow and he shakes his head, laughing shortly. Still no guilt.
The strange thing is, he thinks as he parks up and pushes open the now-familiar heavy door, he and Nick haven't discussed it either. They don't talk about Nova at the lab, just like they don't talk about the lab while they're at Nova. In fact, lab Nick and Nova Nick are almost different people. Restrained, sunny Lab Nick doesn't do friction or disagreements, everything's easy and efficient and sure, no problem man. The man Greg is getting to know is much more of a challenge, but he's starting to get the feeling that this one is the real person, and that knowledge makes Greg feel somehow privileged.
This time, he's already there when Greg breezes into the kitchen, and he looks up, features softening into an expression of genuine pleasure when he sees Greg. Feeling abruptly unsteady on his feet, Greg's fingers curl around the doorframe and grip hard.
"Hey, Greg." Nick waves a smeared knife in greeting. "Want to learn how to make chicken noodle soup?"
Greg does. He really does. But for some reason, he stands there unable to say anything for a few seconds too long, as it hits him so hard that there's absolutely no way he can ignore it any longer. The thing is, he's always known Nick was attractive. He has eyes, after all. But this feeling is different, and the second he identifies it, he wishes he hadn't.
He's in serious trouble.
He's falling inconveniently, inexorably and inadvisably in love with Nick Stokes.
Greg sighs and rakes a fretful hand through his hair.
"What?" says Nick, tilting his head on one side and resting his knifeless hand on his hip.
It's disturbingly attractive. He's screwed. Greg groans softly and hopes Suzi isn't late today. And that she has forgiven him enough for the coffee deception – which, although it made for an interesting afternoon for Greg, Nick, Keith and the patrons of Nova, left Suzi with a slight twitch and the caffeine headache to end them all – to distract him from this new problem.
"I've been thinking about what you said," Greg says some time later, turning his ladle over and over in his fingers.
"Chicken noodle or vegetable?" asks Nick.
"What?" Greg frowns and turns his head, but Nick isn't looking at him.
"Not you," he murmurs with a half smile.
"Vegetable," replies the skinny, green-eyed young man in front of them and Greg jumps. He could have sworn there was no one at the counter a second ago.
"Vegetable, please," says Suzi automatically from Nick's other side. Nick laughs but Greg just stares at her. He knows he's new to this, but surely scolding the homeless isn't the object of the exercise.
"Parent," Nick whispers out of the corner of his mouth by way of explanation, but the cup in his hand remains empty as all three of them look at the man expectantly.
The green eyes narrow, and Greg's fingers clench convulsively around his ladle. He wonders idly if it could be used as a defensive weapon, if necessary. He doesn't like to assume, but the guy looks unstable. He rests dirty-fingernailed hands on the counter and Greg shifts imperceptibly closer to Nick, hoping he doesn't notice.
"You gotta be kidding me," the man says, staring straight at Nick, who looks unmoved, sweeping his ladle through the pot with slow, deliberate strokes but making no step toward giving in.
Greg holds his breath.
"No soup for you!" Nick cries suddenly, slamming the cup down on the counter.
The explosion of sound shatters the silence and Greg's eyes swivel to stare at Nick, alarmed. Nick is clearly insane. Greg silently adds 'is a crazy person' to his mental list of reasons why it's a bad idea to fall in love with Nick Stokes.
He casts a glance over at Suzi, and her usually expressive eyes are unreadable.
Greg wants to say 'Just give him the damn soup, already!' but thinks perhaps that providing an already unstable homeless guy with a cup of scalding liquid isn't the best idea he's ever had.
"Er, Nick..." he starts in a half-whisper, trailing off when he realizes the green-eyed man is laughing.
Real, genuine, warm laughter that changes the pinched face and the cool eyes into something approaching engaging. Greg is confused, and he knows he looks it, but Nick and Suzi are smiling and Greg thinks maybe the world has gone mad. It wouldn't be that much of a surprise, although he concedes it's far more likely that he is the one who has finally lost it.
"You still have to say it, Jerry," comes Keith's voice as he emerges from the kitchen.
Jerry rolls his eyes. "Please."
"Lovely," Nick approves, ladling soup into the empty cup and passing it over. Suzi gives him an extra bread roll and Keith rounds the counter and claps Jerry on the back, grinning. The young man clasps his food to his chest and flashes a smile directly at Greg.
"Jerry's a Seinfeld fan," says Keith, as though that explains everything. Perhaps it does.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Nick Stokes as the Soup Nazi. Of course. Greg shakes his head and watches as the owner sits down with Jerry at a rickety table and engages him in conversation.
"The guy's been coming here almost as long as I have," Nick says softly. Touching Greg's wrist to get his attention, and the light brush of fingertips makes all the hairs on his arm stand on end.
"Huh?" Greg pulls his wrist away before Nick notices, and turns to look at him.
"Jerry. He's been coming here for so long, he's made friends with all the volunteers. Keith thinks he's great, they've really gotten to know each other. He's a little...different, but completely harmless."
Greg fights down a blush, knowing that Nick knew what he was thinking just moments ago. He lets go of his ladle and smiles ruefully.
"He's been coming here for years? Isn't there anything Keith can do for him?" Greg asks.
"Some people don't want to be helped, hon," Suzi offers, as she ferries an empty tray back into the kitchen.
"He's tried," Nick says. Sparing them a glance but quickly returning his eyes to Greg's. "Jerry's been on the streets since he was fifteen. It's what he knows. Sometimes the smartest thing is to know when to stand back and let people make their own decisions. You can't push things on people, even if you think you know what's good for them." He shrugs and smiles at Greg.
Something curls and flips in Greg's stomach and he forces himself to look away. Something in Nick's tone seemed pointed, and he wonders, with an uncomfortable flush of heat, if he's being obvious about this new attraction and Nick is living up to his nice-guy role after all by ever-so-gently letting him know he needs to back off.
Or maybe, Greg, he's actually talking about Keith and Jerry, and you are reading far, far too much into this and need to get a hold of yourself, Greg thinks, wanting nothing more than to bang his head against the nearest wall until common sense prevails.
"What about what I said? And what did I say?" Nick asks the second Suzi finishes washing dishes and leaves the kitchen.
Greg frowns and takes a moment to recall his earlier question. He's impressed and surprised that Nick remembers being asked and that he seems to want to continue the conversation now.
"I say a lot of things, Greg, you'll have to be more specific."
Nick is mopping again with his back to Greg, allowing him to study the line of his back under the tight-fitting sweater appreciatively for a moment as he composes his response.
"You said there was no selfless good deed," Greg says. "Now, I'm assuming you meant that because of that nice, warm feeling, that addictive feeling that you get from acts of kindness...because of that reward, if you like, all good deeds are selfish in part. Right?"
Nick turns slowly and Greg is suddenly aware that he's been thinking about this way too much.
"Yeah, pretty much," Nick replies, features caught between amusement and curiosity. "Though I mostly said that so that you'd stop accusing me of being a saint, it's not a code I live my life by."
Greg pauses, remembering the conversation vividly, and the animosity that seems to have disappeared as rapidly as it arrived.
"It's just a theory, I know," he concedes, holding up a forefinger. "But, think about this. What if the good deed was doing something for someone else, or for the greater good, that you really hated? Surely that cancels out any resulting warm glow from the actual helping, and then you're just left with the good deed. It's like an equation," he explains, gesturing expansively with both hands. "Maybe the level of dislike determines the level of selflessness...direct proportion...what?"
Nick is grinning and staring into his mop bucket. He laughs softly and looks up at Greg, eyes alight with mirth.
"Interesting theory, but philanthropy isn't a science, Greggo," he says.
Greg pouts playfully, immediately scolding himself. Not supposed to be flirting, remember?
"Why the hell not?" he challenges. "Everything's science. Behaviour, nature, everything comes down to patterns and equations and changing variables, in the end. Think about it."
"Ok then," Nick says after a moment, leaning heavily on his mop. "Give me an example."
"Keith and Jerry," Greg answers immediately, twirling the dishtowel in the air at waist height. "It obviously bothers Keith that he can't get Jerry off the streets, Jerry doesn't want it and he hates that, right? But he holds back anyway. He must get very little satisfaction out of that, but he does it anyway. The balance tips to selfless."
Nick looks at him hard for long seconds before speaking. "You make a good point." Nick's voice is soft and rough with something almost like sadness, but only for a second. The urge to make physical contact grips Greg, vicelike, but he stays glued to the spot. He is used to Nick's intensity, but in the confines of the lab, it is somehow contained. Here, in what Greg thinks of as the real world, there are no rules or glass walls to rein it in, and it pulls at Greg maddeningly.
Nick taps the mop handle against his chin thoughtfully and smiles, snapping Greg out of his dangerous thoughts.
"How about...if Sara went out on a date with you. That would be a selfless good deed," Nick offers lightly, not looking at Greg.
"And why's that? Are you suggesting that Sara's that desperate? 'Cause I can tell you now, I think she'd be pretty offended to know that you considered her in need of Greg Sanders' dating...charity." Greg pauses, unsure if he's indignant on Sara's behalf or relieved that the tone of the conversation has at least lightened. "Anyway, I doubt it would be that bad, going out with her. If I even enjoyed it a little bit, it wouldn't be selfless anymore, now would it? So really...what?!"
Nick laughs for some seconds before he can answer. "I meant the other way around, Greggo."
"What?" Greg asks, split seconds before he realizes his mistake. Because he's supposed be desperate to go out with Sara, isn't he? Shit.
"I thought you'd like...and Sara wouldn't want...oh, never mind. I guess I read that one wrong," Nick says.
There is a long silence, in which Greg stares even harder at the floor in front of him and tells himself firmly that Nick does not sound hopeful. That is definitely a figment of his imagination.
"I guess you did," he replies softly. Flicks his wrist to tighten the twist of the damp towel at his side.
"Maybe the theory needs some work, after all," Nick muses, resuming his mopping.
Greg snorts and impulsively rat-tails Nick across the back of the thigh. He just about catches Nick's surprised yelp as he bolts from the room, almost knocking down Keith as he races out of the door for his car.
"See you next week!" he calls without thinking. And there's no use kidding himself, because he knows they will.
Keith is sitting out on the back steps when Greg arrives at Nova the fourth Saturday. It's a slightly warmer day, the sun warmed concrete under Greg's fingers as he sits is suggestive of the approaching Spring. He takes the offered cigarette and Keith waves away his protests and promises to buy his own next time, and they sit in a companionable almost-silence. The only sound in the yard is that of the radio, which Greg has wisely set to the first station he could find that was not playing country music.
Greg exhales slowly and stares at the entrance to the yard, hoping it's not obvious to Keith that he's waiting for Nick to appear with his vegetables. It's a test, he tells himself. He's been testing it all week, in fact; gauging his physical and emotional reaction to seeing his co-worker. He had hoped that the dizzying sensation experienced the previous Saturday would lessen with each new sight of the man, but if anything it seems that the effect is intensifying. But, he reasons, that was at the lab, and this is here. It might be different.
"Suzi's not with us today," Keith says, grabbing Greg's attention.
"Oh? Why not?" Greg is disappointed. He actually tracked down and bought some really fantastic decaffeinated coffee this week, and had planned to give it to Suzi as a peace offering, and because he knows it will make her smile. Not this week, obviously.
"Daughter's dance recital." Keith smiles. "No contest."
"I guess not. So, it's just the three of us today, or do you have – "
"You got me!" interrupts a female voice from the back door. Greg and Keith turn as one to see the young blonde standing behind them, smiling brightly. "Sorry, I just overheard the end of your conversation."
"Greg, this is Laurel." Keith shifts back on the step so he can see them both. "She's a student at UNLV. Usually helps out on Tuesdays, but we got her instead of Suzi today. Laurel, this is Greg, he's a scientist...of some description. Sorry, Greg." Keith glances at him apologetically, and Greg shrugs.
"I'm a DNA technician. At the crime lab," Greg expands, taking the hand that Laurel eagerly thrusts out and wincing inwardly at her painfully strong grip.
She slides her lean frame into the small space between Greg and Keith and hugs her knees, gazing thoughtfully at Greg from behind fashionable square glasses.
"You work with Nick, then?" she asks, taking Greg by surprise.
Keith slides along the step a few inches in an attempt to give all of them some semblance of personal space, and Greg is grateful. Laurel's inquiring dark eyes are a little too close for comfort.
"You know Nick?" he asks, ignoring the warning flare in his chest. She's an attractive girl, and can't be more than twenty-one or twenty-two. He wants, irrationally, to tell her to back off, and all she's done is mention his name, but it seems very familiar and...Greg stops, and tries again. "Yeah, Nick and I work together." He smiles, and Laurel smiles back, though her eyes are appraising.
"We've worked together a couple of times, too. I take it you're responsible for the music today? Nick has the worst taste in music, doesn't he?" Laurel laughs.
Greg wants to tell her to shut up, even though he actually agrees with her. This cannot be good.
"I like country music," Keith offers absently.
"'I'm going to hire an alcoholic interior decorator?'" teases Greg, looking away from Laurel, gratified to hear Keith's laughter and, shamefully, Laurel's small noise of incomprehension.
"Close enough, Greg." The hazel eyes sparkle and Greg grins gratefully.
Nick chooses that moment to show up, and being the first to look around, Greg catches the split second look of horror on his co-worker's face as he regards the three of them sitting out on the step. Very quickly, though, he changes it into a friendly smile and greets each of them. The effect, Greg notes, is not even slightly lessened since last week. He's glad he's sitting down.
"Greg, Keith," Nick nods. "Laurel."
"Hi Nick. I'm being Suzi today," she informs him.
"Great," smiles Nick.
Great, echoes Greg silently, leading the way into the kitchen.
It's a long half hour before Keith asks Laurel to help him with something in the dining room, and she reluctantly follows him out of the kitchen. Greg sighs with relief. Though he has to admit, the girl is an efficient and talented cook, making short work of her own pile of vegetables and half of Greg's in no time, she barely stops for breath. Greg doesn't mind loquaciousness one bit, usually. He loves Suzi's stories and he can certainly give as good as he gets in the talking stakes, but all Laurel talks about is herself. How she's going to change the world, and her application for Harvard Law, and how important it is to help the less fortunate, not least because it looks 'so good on your resume, right?'
As soon as she's out of the room, Nick drops his wooden spoon and drags a weary hand across his face.
"I already have a headache," he complains. "I really didn't need her today."
"What's the matter with her?" Greg asks innocently. Privately, he thinks the answer to that question is 'How long have you got?' but he wants to hear what Nick thinks.
"She..." Nick drops his voice and leans closer to Greg, making him catch his breath until he realizes that it's so that they aren't overheard. "She drives me crazy! Laurel is one of those people that says a lot without actually saying anything at all, hadn't you noticed?"
Secretly pleased that Nick doesn't like her, Greg opens his mouth to respond.
"I suppose she's attractive enough, maybe that's why you haven't noticed how annoying she is," Nick interrupts, and Greg suddenly wants to strangle him.
"No," he hisses. "I had noticed." Greg doesn't trust himself to comment on her attractiveness, or more accurately, how he finds long blonde hair and glossy lips and low-cut t-shirts resoundingly un-stirring. "I think she likes you, though," he whispers, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Nick blinks. "What?"
"She likes you. Are you blind?" Greg tries hard to keep the jealousy out of his tone, but it's difficult.
Nick looks around him at the empty doorway and shakes his head, seemingly incredulous. "Are you serious?"
Greg raises his eyes to the ceiling. "Trust me."
"I'm ten years older than her, at least!"
"So what?" Greg hisses, stepping closer again. "She doesn't care about that. You're smart, and nice, and attractive, and despite your obviously appalling taste in music and apparent...ignorance when it comes to the opposite sex, you're really quite..." Greg halts abruptly, catching sight of Nick's wide eyes and turning away before Nick can see his violent blush. "...you know, um, a catch. I imagine," he finishes weakly.
"Oh," says Nick, and it's almost a whisper.
When Laurel comes back into the kitchen and starts up her incessant chatter once again, Greg is almost grateful.
"I gave your theory some thought," Nick says, some hours later.
Greg looks up from where he is observing the interaction between Jerry and Keith. The older man is pouring soup into a cup for Jerry and nodding encouragingly as the green-eyed man speaks. Keith played the Soup Nazi role today, which Greg now understands is as much of a tradition as anything else in this place, and as necessary to Jerry as the hot food he ostensibly comes to Nova for. Greg can't help but feel a little smug that he didn't even jump when Keith's loud cry echoed in the space. He wonders for the first time if Jerry chooses to come late in the afternoon because there will be fewer people around. Laurel didn't jump either, which is a shame.
"My theory?" Greg raises an eyebrow. "You did?"
"Yeah. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I had an alternate theory."
"Go on," Greg says. "I'm listening." He doesn't look at Nick but continues to arrange the remaining bread rolls into concentric circles on the tray.
"I wondered if maybe...if a person was to do a good deed and then never tell anyone, and make sure the person they did the good deed for never found out that they did it, maybe that would be selfless." Nick rests his hands on the counter top and Greg stares down at them, thinking. "All of the altruism, none of the glory. What do you think?"
"I'm not sure," Greg replies. "You'd still get the warm fuzzy feeling...but I see what you're saying."
"Sometimes the warm fuzzy feeling is unavoidable," Nick says seriously, and Greg chooses that exact moment to look up and meet his eyes. They are positively treacle-like and Greg shivers. "I guess what I'm saying is that maybe the pure selflessness is in the intention, not the act itself."
"Whether it's done to help the other person or to make you feel good," Greg clarifies.
Greg smiles at his bread rolls. If he was having this conversation with anyone else, he'd consider it flirting, he realizes. It's a pointless and yet carefully thought-out debate that keeps coming back. Luckily, he's not into deluding himself, but Nick's eyes are a little too warm and he's a little too close and Greg doesn't want to say something he regrets.
"Congratulations," he grins, looking up at Nick with false confidence. "You've created an entirely untestable theory. Scientists hate those, you know."
"Shut up. I'm a scientist too," Nick shoots back, sounding almost a little hurt, but the eyes are full of good-natured challenge.
"Science is fascinating, isn't it?" offers Laurel, appearing behind Greg. Greg rolls his eyes, unseen. "I was thinking of taking a science class next year." She touches Nick on the arm and drifts back into the kitchen.
"I thought she wanted to be a lawyer," Nick points out.
"She wants to get in your pants, Stokes." Greg destroys his bread roll pattern and starts a new one.
Nick winces and rubs the back of his neck. "I don't know what to say to her. I don't want to be cruel to her, but I don't think I've ever given her the impression that I even like her very much."
"Doesn't matter," Greg replies, balancing three rolls precariously on top of each other. "She thinks she can win you over, no doubt."
"God help me," says Nick. He looks up as a small, elderly woman approaches the counter. "Minestrone or pea and mint?"
God help me. Greg blows a wayward strand of hair from his forehead and leans harder into his scrubbing. It's his own fault, he burnt the first lot of onions and now he can't get the charred mess off the bottom of the pan.
I don't know what to say to her. God help me.
Greg can't get Nick's pained expression out of his head, and it's particularly hard to forget about Laurel when she's standing three feet away from him, drying cutlery and talking. He finds it hard to believe that Nick is so clueless, but he knows that the incredulous expression was genuine. He really couldn't understand what someone like Laurel might like about him. Jesus. Greg only wishes he hadn't ever-so-helpfully filled in the blanks, that was just embarrassing.
"I can't understand why anyone wouldn't give up their time to do something like this," she says, flicking her long hair over one shoulder. "People are just selfish, don't you think?"
Greg grinds his teeth and reminds himself why he insisted on helping Laurel with the dishes instead of helping Keith with the dining room. Because it's better for him to be irritated to death than for Nick to get jumped on. Nick's expression had been an appealing mixture of guilt and gratitude as he watched Greg follow Laurel into the kitchen.
"I don't know," he replies, keeping his voice neutral. "Not everyone has the time."
"That's just an excuse," she argues. "And anyway, you and Nick have important jobs but you still find time. Nick's a CSI, you know."
"I know," Greg says faintly. He continues to scrub, hard.
"He's amazing. We seem to have this real connection, you know, something that goes beyond the physical," Laurel continues. Greg scrubs and bites his lip. "He's such a polite man, though, I think he's probably just too shy to ask me out."
Scrub, damnit, just keep scrubbing. Greg closes his eyes for a second.
"I think I'll ask him to get a drink with me tonight."
Eyes flying open, Greg's hand stills under the water. Something cold and unpleasant prickles under his skin and he has to say something, he knows he does.
'If a person was to do a good deed and then never tell anyone, and make sure the person they did the good deed for never found out that they did it..'
Greg's heart races.
"Nick, um...Nick has a girlfriend," he lies.
Laurel almost chokes beside him, and despite his nervousness, Greg finds it very hard not to smile. He forces himself to look up at her, his best sincere expression affixed to his face.
"He would have told me!"
Really? Greg sighs and wipes his wet hands on his jeans, leaning closer to Laurel conspiratorially.
"It's kind of a secret. It's someone we work with, you know? They don't really want anyone to know yet, so please don't tell I said anything to you." He blinks appealingly at her and drives home the final nail. "I thought you should know, just so you don't make a fool of yourself."
Greg smiles sympathetically and hopes it isn't obvious to Laurel that he feels like he's about to be violently sick. Contrary to popular belief, he's not a great liar and he is almost certain that what he's doing is completely transparent.
Or not. The colour has drained from Laurel's face. She looks genuinely crushed, and Greg almost feels sorry for her, but not quite.
"What's her name?" she whispers.
"I don't really want to say, as I said it's kind of hush-hush," Greg says hurriedly.
"Is she hot?"
Greg isn't sure how he's supposed to answer that question. Yes - she's hotter than you, double rejection? Or no – she's a pig, you'd have a chance to steal him from her? Fuck.
"Greg, you got a second?" calls Keith from the dining room.
Flooded with relief, Greg smiles apologetically at Laurel and gets the fuck out of there.
She barely says a word for the next twenty minutes until she leaves. Greg holds his breath when she says goodbye to Nick, but Laurel merely smiles, touches his arm and heads for the door. The look Greg gets conveys all kinds of unimpressed but he doesn't care.
"What's gotten into her?" Nick asks no one in particular.
"I think she broke a nail," says Greg, turning away so Nick can't see his smile.
By the early hours of Tuesday morning, Greg is starting to wonder if he is being punished for lying to Laurel. He's barely sleeping, his tests are coming up with results that no one wants, so both Catherine and Warrick have snapped at him, even though it's obviously not his fault, and someone has used up the last of his supposedly secret stash of decent coffee in the break room. He is rifling through the cupboards looking for anything that doesn't taste like brown water when he knocks his favourite red mug onto the floor, where it smashes into pieces.
Greg looks down at the pieces and sighs heavily. He has had that cup since his first month in the lab, and he was attached to it. Greg is of the mind that once the perfect cup has been found, drinks just don't taste right out of anything else. He also believes that anyone who disagrees just hasn't found the right cup yet. Mournfully, he scoops up the pieces and deposits them carefully in the waste basket next to the door. He makes bad coffee in a green cup that is wrong on so many levels, and frowns all the way back to the DNA lab.
When he wakes before noon yet again, Greg is tempted to drive over to Nova and give Keith a hand. He might as well be doing something useful with his time, he thinks, but he soon remembers that Tuesday is Laurel's day, and swiftly reconsiders. Nick has looked tired and fed up the past couple of days, too, and Greg wishes he didn't care so much, but the smiles and friendly conversation of the last two weeks have been few and far between this week. Greg groans and buries his face in his pillow. He really needs to stop thinking about Nick.
When Greg enters the DNA lab on Tuesday night, he stops dead. Blinks once, twice, and one more time just in case. But no, it's still there. A shiny red mug, sitting in the middle of his desk, on top of a pile of paperwork. He steps closer slowly, almost suspiciously, and picks it up as though it might explode.
After examining it from all angles and satisfying himself that it is, in fact, just a cup, Greg turns it over and over in his hands and laughs softly. The cup is, almost but not quite, an exact replica of the one he broke the night before. He didn't tell anyone about it, in fact he didn't feel much like talking to anyone about anything last night. Just turned the music up high and lost himself in test after test, willing the time away. Frowning, Greg sets the cup down and spins thoughtfully in his chair.
The only way anyone would know was if they had seen the pieces in the waste basket, but they would also have to be someone who actually paid enough attention to what Greg said about cups to know that he would care about breaking it. Someone who would not only know that a replacement would make Greg happy, but would also care that it would make him happy. And who would leave it on his desk without a note, rather than give it to him, to see the smile on his face when...
'All of the altruism, none of the glory.'
Greg's stomach swoops dramatically and he stares at the unassuming red mug for a long time. It can't have been anyone but Nick. For some time, he can't quite keep the smile from his face, especially when during the first trial run of the new mug, he discovers that coffee – now, thankfully, Blue Hawaiian once more – tastes just fine from it. He only wishes Nick had more nefarious intentions than backing up his theory of selflessness.
On his third trip to the break room for a refill, Greg almost walks straight into Nick. The older man jumps slightly, startled, and spills a few drops of his coffee onto Greg's lab coat. Apologising, he brushes at Greg's lapels ineffectually until Greg stops him.
"Nick, it's fine," he says gently, taking a step back and definitely not breathing in his delicious warm scent.
Nick looks up and Greg does not miss the way the dark eyes flicker over the red cup in his hand before reaching and locking into eye contact with Greg. Nick smiles hesitantly and despite his better intentions, Greg can't look away. Tension wraps around him, creeping around his legs like a vine, restricting movement, wrapping around his chest until he can't breathe. He's so fucking beautiful that Greg is in pain. None of Greg's intentions are pure, he can be certain of that, and he aches.
"Nick," he begins, not sure what he's going to say but he has to say something. "Nick, I..."
"Excuse me, Greg." Grissom's voice is polite but authoritative behind him, and Greg realizes he is preventing his supervisor from entering the room. He moves, smiles weakly at Nick and escapes from the room without coffee.
Sara stops him seconds before he reaches the safety of his lab. "Hey, Greggo, are you going down to Nova this Saturday?"
He freezes, sure that the game is up, she knows he's been going without her every week. Just for a moment, before he remembers that this week is supposed to be their second visit. It's ok. Turning around slowly, Greg exhales with relief.
"Yeah. Of course, I'll see you there, same time, same place and all that," he mumbles, flashing a smile.
"Is everything ok, Greg?" Sara's voice is laced with concern, and well-placed though it may be, he doesn't want it.
"Fine." He turns up the reassuring grin a notch or two and ducks back into his lab.
That morning, he still can't sleep.
On Thursday morning, Greg gives in and drives straight from the lab to the park, where he finds Keith and a short, middle-aged man with round glasses and a receding hairline dishing out soup from a hatch in Keith's battered old converted van.
The early morning March air sends a chill through Greg, and he zips his thin jacket right up under his chin as he approaches the van.
"Chicken or French onion?" asks the small man.
"Neither, thanks," replies Greg. "Need a hand?"
Keith turns and laughs when he recognises Greg. "It's ok, Murray. Greg's one of my Saturday guys." He turns to address Greg, who is bristling with a strange new pride at Keith's casual explanation of his role. "It's pretty quiet right now, in fact...I'm going to take a break."
Keith sets his ladle down and asks Murray to hold the fort for ten minutes. Greg walks beside the older man, dragging his feet and kicking up gravel. Wondering what the hell he's doing here, really.
"I wanted to ask you something, actually," Keith admits, running a hand through his unruly hair.
Greg looks up in surprise. Keith flops down onto a nearby bench and Greg follows him, curious.
"I wondered, and you don't have to tell me, but...I wondered what you said to Laurel on Saturday."
"Oh," says Greg. "That." He remembers his words with ease, and Laurel's expression. He honestly believed that she wouldn't say anything. "Why do you ask?"
"I couldn't help but notice that she didn't say a single word about Nick all day Tuesday. She normally can't stop asking about the poor guy." Keith shakes his head. "The girl's obsessed. You must have noticed. I think the only person who hasn't is Nick." He pauses and fixes Greg with the steady, hazel stare. "She hasn't been the same since she did the dishes with you on Saturday evening. Put me out of my misery, Greg, please?"
His expression flickers to one of mute appeal and Greg sighs.
"I told her Nick had a girlfriend."
Greg isn't sure what sort of reaction he was expecting to follow his admission, but he didn't expect Keith to laugh. In fact, it's more of a cackle; the older man throws his head back and slaps his thighs with delight.
"What's so funny?" inquires Greg, staring at him.
Keith regards him breathlessly for a moment before speaking. "Nick's gay, Greg, didn't you know that?"
Greg's stomach ceases its swooping and instead drops through his body and onto the gravel. After three or four seconds his body reminds itself to breathe, and he gulps at the cold air noisily.
"No. I did not know that," he says at last.
"Ah. Shit. I'm bad with secrets, can you tell?"
Greg laughs hollowly. He thinks he might never sleep again. Keith glances back over at the van; Greg mutely follows his eyes and sees the queue forming and threatening to overwhelm poor Murray.
"Wanna help?" Keith gets up and stretches.
Greg has Thursday night off, and he barely sees Nick during Friday's shift; in fact he barely gets a chance to breathe. The work flies into his lab at breakneck speed, and Greg spends almost twelve hours just trying to keep his head above water. He's pleased because if he doesn't have time to breathe, he certainly doesn't have time to think. And he doesn't want to think about what Keith said, because if he does, it throws everything into a terrifying new light.
Because of course, he has to think eventually. Greg thinks all the way home from the lab on Saturday morning. He thinks for the two futile hours he spends lying flat on his back looking at the cracks in his bedroom ceiling, and he thinks in the car all the way to Nova. It was no trouble at all when he regarded Nick as a perfectly pleasant, attractive co-worker and nothing more. It was mildly inconvenient but manageable when he saw Nick as a sanctimonious but hot weekend distraction. It was even controllable when it hit him that he was falling in love with the complicated bastard, because he was straight, and unattainable and unavailable, and all of those other words Greg had been using to keep a nice, safe barrier between himself and Nick.
Now? Now, Greg feels vulnerable, and he doesn't like it. Not only because of what Keith told him, but because he has come to the conclusion that the comfortable roles that exist at the lab for them to hide behind just don't exist here at Nova. Here, he isn't flirt-with-anything-with-a-pulse, try-anything-Sanders, he's just Greg, and that makes him feel more exposed than anything.
Part of him is terrified that Nick has seen through him all this time, has seen the feelings that have developed over the past month and is just waiting to expose and crush him. Greg's more rational side tells him that for one thing, Nick isn't like that; he hadn't wanted to upset Laurel despite her being possibly the most annoying person Greg has ever met. Plus, Laurel's sledgehammer approach to flirting had gone right over his head, so perhaps Nick just isn't that good at reading signs.
Greg shakes himself and pulls his breathing into a calming, regular pattern. Smooths down his new bright red t-shirt and old-but-flattering jeans and strides into the kitchen. He's not sure if he's late or everyone else is early, but Nick is already there, bags spread out on the counter, talking animatedly to Keith. He smiles at Greg over Keith's shoulder and the warmth that spreads through him is sharply edged with fear, but Greg smiles back. No need for anyone to actually know he feels nervous, after all.
"Greg," Sara addresses him from the back door, arms folded. There's something about her face that makes him want to take a step back, but he stands his ground. "Suzi tells me you've been quite the regular little helper this month."
Suzi, who has been trying to hide behind Sara, emerges and cringes slightly before she recovers her usual aplomb. "I didn't know it was a secret," she says, lifting her chin slightly to meet Greg's eyes.
"Er..." Greg stumbles. Looks at his shoes. How to explain, without telling everyone that actually, he didn't want to share Nick's attention with anyone else. That he has become fiercely protective of their Saturday afternoons together and he shouldn't have to apologise for that? When he chances to look back at Sara, she is smiling lightly and eyeing him with genuine curiosity.
"I don't think I've ever seen you look so worried, Greggo." She laughs and shakes her head. "I don't care. I think you're all insane, but I'm not mad at you. I don't know why you'd think I would be. Give me some credit."
"Good," he says, unable to think of anything more profound, feeling Nick's eyes on his back like they are burning a hole through him. "I got you something," he remembers, tossing the package of coffee to Suzi. "Call us even, now?"
"Sure," she agrees. "Decaf is not your enemy, Greg."
"And discretion isn't yours," he replies smugly and pokes his tongue out at Suzi.
"Want to play?" inquires Nick some minutes later.
Something in the tone of his voice sends a flash of heat through Greg and he jumps, dropping his wooden spoon into the simmering pot.
"Fuck," he hisses. Not nervous, he reminds himself. Nick Stokes does not make you nervous.
Greg breathes and turns around to see Nick holding up a bulging plastic bag with a lopsided grin on his face.
"Play what?" Greg asks, turning his nerves with some effort into challenge.
"Name...that...herb!" Nick replies, drawing out each word in the manner of a gameshow host and dropping the bag onto the counter with a flourish.
Greg lifts his chin and crosses his arms over his chest. "Oh, it's on, Stokes."
After his horror the first week that Greg could not identify fresh coriander, Nick has made it somewhat of a mission to educate him. Greg is a willing and able student, it seems, and he feels confident. Not only because playing games with Nick is safe, familiar ground, but because Greg – ever competitive – is getting very fucking good at this particular game.
Nick grins and Greg looks down at the bag expectantly. "For ten points..." Greg murmurs, rubbing his hands together.
"Close your eyes." Nick steps closer, dragging the bag along the counter with one finger.
"What? No!" Greg protests. Closed eyes have never been part of the rules. Could be...dangerous.
"Greg." Nick's voice is low and soft. "Close your eyes, or it's cheating. New rules."
Greg sighs. "Fine."
He closes his eyes and folds his arms protectively over his chest once more. It's ridiculous, but somehow he feels more vulnerable standing in front of Nick with his eyes closed than he has ever felt. His heart is racing as Nick steps closer. The rustling of thin plastic and the rasp of his own breathing roars in his ears. Something sweet and almost pine-scented is held under his nose. He knows this one.
"Correct." He can hear the smile in Nick's voice and daren't open his eyes. "Next."
This one is a cool, flat smell that Greg instantly links with tomatoes. "Ha. Basil."
"Yep. And finally, for the star prize..." Nick trails off and holds up the last sample. It's warm-smelling, slightly spicy.
"That's the pizza one," Greg says, triumphant. "Oregano?"
"Very impressive," Nick replies from inches away.
Deprived of one of his senses, Greg is dazzled by the warmth and proximity and still does not quite want to open his eyes.
Finally, he feels Nick step away. Personal space restored, Greg blinks and leans back on the counter for a moment, watching as Nick looks into the pan and fishes out Greg's dropped spoon. Shakes it off slightly and then, almost as an afterthought, raises it to his lips to taste the soup. He licks carefully at the back of the spoon and smiles. Greg's mouth turns dry.
"I thought you were a hopeless case, Greggo. I guess I was wrong," he teases.
"Is this some sort of service you're providing me with?" Greg asks, trying to stare at the spoon instead of Nick's lips.
"Yeah. The herb game is like an outreach programme." Nick sends him a sidelong glance and smirks.
"Selfish or selfless?" Greg quirks an eyebrow.
"Selfish," laughs Nick. "If you ever cook for me, I want you to know what you're doing."
He holds Greg's gaze for two long seconds. Drops the spoon into the sink with a sharp clang and walks calmly out into the dining room, clearly having no idea that his simple, throwaway comment has left Greg uncomfortably warm and momentarily speechless.
When Sara slides in next to him in the serving line instead of Nick, Greg is relieved. And when ten seconds later, Suzi stands on her other side, putting even more distance between them, Greg feels like he can breathe again.
The three of them make casual, easy conversation for much of the afternoon, leaving Nick and Keith to their own devices. Greg ladles and listens and chats to everyone in line, relishing the growing ease with which he interacts with the patrons; remembering all too well his awkwardness during those first couple of weeks. He smiles at Sara when he senses her watching him with interest, but continues his conversation with a tall, red-haired man whose name he cannot remember but whose face he has seen almost every week.
"You've changed," she says. The queue has dissipated and Greg turns to look at her.
"What do you mean?"
"Greg, you've changed. Doing this," she gestures around, indicating the room. "Has changed you." Sara's voice and searching eyes are insistent, but not critical. "You're...warmer."
"Oh." Greg allows his surprise to colour that one word. Warmer. Maybe he is. "Was I cold before?"
She frowns, drawing dark brows together. "Not exactly. You're...you're almost..." Sara stops and seems to reconsider. Curiosity piqued, Greg gestures for her to continue, forgetting he still has the ladle in his hand. Sprays them both lightly with tomato soup.
"Ok." Sara throws him a look and brushes her shirt ineffectually. "You're a little more like Nick, and he's a little more like you. It's the strangest thing."
Greg's stomach tips unpleasantly. He looks away from Sara and into the pot, breathing in fragrant, tomato-scented steam. "What does Nick have to do with it?" he asks evenly.
During the ensuing pregnant silence, Greg has to bite the inside of his mouth hard to stop himself looking up at Sara, because he knows if he does, his eyes will give him away in seconds.
"Well, I wasn't going to mention it, but you do seem to be getting along a lot better than the last time we were all here," she says finally. And with a studied innocence that Greg isn't buying for a moment.
"We worked out our differences," Greg says, flat-toned.
"Is that all?" Sara presses.
Inhaling sharply, Greg flicks a panicked glance over Sara's shoulder, relaxing slightly when he sees Suzi, Nick and Keith absorbed in conversation. Sara is waiting, and Greg should have known that she'd notice it. Feel it. The change in his and Nick's relationship must seem dramatic to Sara's fresh pair of eyes. A dull ache compresses inside his ribcage and he sighs, panic melting into resignation.
"Don't, Sara...please." It's almost a whisper, and as close to an admission as he is going to get.
She exhales slowly, audibly beside Greg. "Look." She elbows him firmly in the ribs. "I'm not going to push you, Greggo, but just...I was in the kitchen earlier, and I saw the way he was looking at you when you had your eyes closed. I don't think he even noticed I was there. Do you know what I'm saying?"
Greg feels his face heat at the implication. Sara's suggestion hitting him firmly between the shoulder blades and only serving to increase the sick feeling licking at his insides. He's preparing himself to respond when he is saved by the person approaching the counter.
Grinning with dizzy relief, Greg looks up sharply. "Tomato or mushroom?"
The familiar green eyes sparkle with a hint of amusement, and Greg pales. Oh, fuck.
Greg casts a rapid glance down the counter and sees Keith, Nick and Suzi's eyes trained on him, silent but expectant, and Jerry isn't moving, and he knows what's expected of him.
"Tomato," says Jerry, and Greg doesn't move. He can feel Sara's confusion radiating like an aura, and he swallows hard. He wonders if this is the soup kitchen equivalent of a hazing ritual. Greg tries to keep his face stern, but his mouth twitches upwards at one corner. With some effort, he fixes Jerry with his coolest stare.
"What about the magic word?" Sara's sharp intake of breath beside him only spurs him on.
"Now?" Jerry offers innocently. One second, two, three...
"No soup for you!" bellows Greg, and bangs his ladle menacingly against the edge of the pot.
Sara jumps back from him, startled. Greg hums with exhilaration as he looks over at the others and back to Jerry, raising an eyebrow invitingly.
"Tomato soup, please," he mutters at last, and Greg obligingly fills the cup for him.
As he turns away, Greg catches Sara's stunned expression and bursts into laughter. Keith winks and Suzi shoots him an approving glance before returning to Sara's side to put her in the picture. The second Greg meets Nick's eyes, his laughter falters. His gaze is all at once affectionate, proud and heated. Sara's unwelcome words slam into Greg's head and electricity slides down his spine.
Sara rinses around the sink hurriedly and wipes her hands on her jeans. She glances at her watch and peers around the doorframe into the dining room. Greg watches her with interest over the top of the plate he is drying, at the same time trying to block out the radio, which is back on Nick's station, and pretend that Nick is not right behind him bending over his mop. Something which is proving increasingly difficult due to Nick's usual insistence on adding his voice to that of his favourite country stars.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to understand," Nick sings softly. "But you're teachin' me to be a better man."
Greg grits his teeth. Sara leans so far around the door that he is amazed she hasn't fallen over yet.
"I wanna love somebody, somebody like you," Nick continues tunelessly, scraping his bucket across the tiles.
Torture, that's what this is, he decides. Sara ducks back into the room.
"Greg...Nick...do you guys mind if Suzi and I leave a little early?" she asks.
"Go ahead," says Nick.
"You got plans?" Greg is intrigued.
She smiles, lighting her whole face, and just for a second, Greg forgets all about Nick. Sara looks genuinely happy, and that's rare. "Suzi and I are going to catch a movie, and it's starting in like a half hour."
He smiles back, pleased. Knowing how hard Sara finds it to make friends, and especially female ones. Though knowing Suzi, he suspects she had no choice in the matter.
"Why Sara Sidle," he teases. "Could this be you getting a life outside of work?"
"Maybe." She tucks a strand of dark hair behind her ears and shrugs.
"Thought you said she was too loud?"
"I decided to give her a chance," she says pointedly. Eyes sliding to Nick and back, and Greg is very happy that he has his back turned, because Sara Sidle has never been and will never be subtle.
"There's an unlikely friendship," Nick comments, tipping his bucket out into the yard as soon as Sara and Suzi have left.
"Because they're so different?" Greg asks. He dries and stores away the last of the pans. Ignoring Nick's singing is one thing, but ignoring his conversation is another.
"Because they're so similar," Nick corrects. "Both workaholics. Both very opinionated. Both smart, both stubborn. I'm sure they'll disagree on everything there is to disagree on, just for the sake of it."
He stacks the mop and bucket behind the back door and steps closer to Greg. Eyes catching, Greg slides sideways along the counter, alarmed, heart beating a frenetic pace. He can't quite understand why Nick is torturing him like this, and even if he's doing it on purpose, whatever Sara might have said, but it burns and twists and he needs to look away.
"Er, well, sometimes it's good to disagree." Greg wets his bottom lip agitatedly. "You know, argument, debate, challenge...passion, all that...stuff, it's good. Healthy. Interesting," he mutters, not really aware of what he's saying or even if he's making sense. He moves again, further away.
Nick's eyes flicker. "Yeah. Ah...Greg?" he says gently, reaching out. Greg freezes. "Can you stay still for just a second so I can dry my hands on that towel?"
Greg looks down and stares dumbly at the crumpled check teatowel he hadn't realized he was still clutching. Nick just wants to dry his hands, that's all. And here he is, backing away as though Nick is about to molest him. Which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, if he wanted to. Greg's head snaps up and abruptly he releases the towel into Nick's waiting hands.
"Thanks. I'm going to go see if Keith wants a coffee before I go," Nick says, rubbing a thoughtful hand through the hair at the back of his neck.
Greg can't read his expression but he needs some air. As soon as he is alone in the kitchen he stumbles out into the yard and sits down heavily on the hard concrete steps. It's almost dark, and the air that Greg drags into his lungs is sweet and cold, harsh enough on the sensitive inside of his nose and throat to bring him to his senses again.
He's losing it. Five Saturdays in this place and he's crazy. Warm, Sara said. Greg wonders if that was a euphemism for crazy, too. Anything is possible in a world where he makes soup, and yells at homeless guys, and where Nick Stokes is gay. Where lying to college girls is selflessness, and where Nick Stokes singing country songs makes Greg want to kiss him. Greg groans and hugs his knees, rubbing at his bare arms to keep warm.
Footsteps on the concrete beside him make Greg look up.
"You ok, Greggo? I made you a coffee."
Nick looks concerned, and hands the steaming cup down to Greg, who stares at it, suddenly ridiculously pleased that Nick remembers he doesn't take milk in his coffee, and that he likes it strong. The cup is red, and not dissimilar to the one he drinks out of at the lab. The one that he thinks, hopes, Nick replaced when he shattered the old one.
Nick sits down on the step beside him and Greg exhales shakily. Watches his shadowy profile as he rests hands on his bent knees and looks out into the yard, eyes fixed on the middle distance. Unable to stop himself, Greg's eyes devour every inch of his face, the strong jaw, straight nose and skin that appears strangely pale in the fading light, dark hair that is slightly too long at the front falling softly over his forehead. The eyes are calm, and something about Nick's expression soothes the crackle under Greg's skin and smoothes it into something infinitely deeper and sharper.
"You notice...my cups," Greg says. Something prevents him from saying the words that would directly negate Nick's selfless good deed.
Nick smiles slowly. "I notice you," he replies.
When he shifts on the step so that he is angled toward Greg, there is no mistaking his intention. Dark eyes meet darker ones, and Greg is caught, everywhere. Slowly, inevitably, he turns in to Nick, knees and thighs brushing, denim against denim. Nick carefully extracts the cup from Greg's unsteady hand and sets it on the top step before he can spill scalding hot liquid over both of them. Greg's breath catches and the wave inside him crashes as they both lean to close the distance between them.
Nick's hand sliding onto Greg's thigh, spreading unbelievable heat out from under his touch as Greg braces one hand against the cold concrete of the step, the other reaching up to curl around the back of Nick's neck and pull him closer until their mouths meet in a long, firm press of lips, just relishing the pure relief of the contact for long seconds. Neither moving for a moment, five weeks of tension snapping and dissolving inside Greg.
He moans softly into the kiss as Nick's hand slides up into his hair and holds him firm, lips parting gently and Greg is suddenly eager for that first taste, the first hot slide of his tongue against Nick's and when it comes, the sensation makes him shiver and press closer. Nick tastes like spices, like all of and none of the ones he knows and it's just exactly right. As this is, here on the back steps of a freshly mopped downtown Vegas kitchen, with a man that Greg has known and wanted for too long and no time at all; all at once. Suddenly it all makes sense, just for a moment.
Rapidly, the soft kiss intensifies into something slow and deep and so full of intention that it makes Greg's head spin. Nick's hands remain possessively curled around his hip and the back of his head as they pull away reluctantly for air.
Greg traces kiss-swollen lips with his finger and runs the tip of his tongue lightly over his own bottom lip. Nick's eyes drop to follow the movement and he smiles.
"What's your motivation, Nick?" Greg whispers. "Warm fuzzies or the greater good?"
Nick laughs softly. Takes Greg's lower lip between his gently and touches the tip of his tongue to Greg's with agonising, delicious lightness.
"Neither. I just wanted to."
"Selfish," Greg mock-admonishes with a half-smile, kissing the corners of Nick's mouth repeatedly, humming contentedly as they quirk upwards under his lips. "You're a crappy altruist."
"I know...how will you put up with me?"
"I'll find a way," Greg replies, pulling Nick into another kiss.
All things considered, putting up with Nick Stokes might be easier than first anticipated.
al·tru·ism (al′tro̵̅o̅ iz′əm)
1) Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness
2) The doctrine that the general welfare of society is the proper goal of an individual's actions
Nick sings 'I'm Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home' by David Frizzell and 'Somebody Like You' by Keith Urban.