III - CIRCLES

She had never really been attracted to his type before.  Muscular – too good looking for their own good.  In her past experiences, men like him had always had more 'vain than brain', as she and her best friend Claudia used to say.  In high school, jocks like him had always gone for the cheerleaders – popular, impossibly pert girls, who were more bookends than people.  Never the brainy girls.  Never the girls that were too tall and slim and impossibly coltish for their own goods.

Admittedly, in high school, it had hurt somewhat.  After all, what girl, in the first throes of hormonal rushes and boy-crazy awareness, wouldn't notice the 'perfect' boys first?  Sara had quickly discovered that these supposed 'ideals' weren't really ideal.  They were like strutting peacocks, all flashy plumage but nothing really on the inside;  nothing that would keep a girl like her interested in the long run, even if the physical initially appealed.

She had expected the same from him.  When she had first arrived in Las Vegas and met Grissom's team, she had immediately fallen back into her old suppositions, and categorized him as a pretty-boy jock that had probably gotten where he was on looks and charm.

Not that the looks – and the charm – weren't considerable.

Of course, over the years, Sara had learned to deal with men like that – university had been kind to her, and she had turned from an ugly duckling into a swan, growing into her limbs and her face.  Throughout university, and later as she began her career, she had become quite adept at harmless flirting; and deflecting the attention of men like him. 

She expected that her relationship with Nick would be the same – especially after everything she had heard about him from various sources around the lab: ex-frat boy, high school football star; ladies man.  She watched his easy way with people, the way he flirted with everyone, and for a while allowed herself to be fooled by her initial assumptions.  When he flirted with her, she would flirt back – nothing serious, always light, in a tone that clearly said 'just friends'.

When he had gotten involved with Kristy Hopkins, first as a friend and then in a brief one-night affair that had ended in tragedy, she had tried to ignore the small prick of jealousy that had flared briefly in her, tramping it down mercilessly by telling herself she shouldn't have been surprised.

What had surprised her was the way he had reacted to that death.  He had been devastated.  He had hidden it around the lab, retaining his usual charming flirty nature, but in moments of quiet, when he didn't realize anyone was watching, she would see the grief in his eyes.

She had found him in the parking lot a couple of days after Kristy's murder, wearing a dark suit, just sitting in his truck staring at nothing.  She had debated disturbing him, but he had seemed so sad and so lonely, her natural empathy had taken over.

She had knocked on his window, smiling timidly when he turned a shuttered gaze in her direction, before rolling it down.  "Sara."

"Nick."  Awkward silence.  Nick shut his eyes.  "Are you alright, Nick?"

He had rubbed the back of his hand tiredly across his face, "Yeah, Sara.  I'm fine."

"What are you doing."

"Funeral."

"Oh.  I'm sorry.  Anyone I know?"

"Kristy Hopkins."  He had sighed again as he said her name, "If I can convince myself to go."

"Do you need to?"

Nick had looked at her blankly, before smiling grimly, "If I don't, no one will be there to say goodbye to her.  She deserves someone to be there."

It had been Sara's turn to stare at him, "What about her family?  Her friends?"

Nick shrugged, "Nope.  Just me."

"I'll go with you -  no one should have to say goodbye to someone they loved all alone."

As Nick had indicated, no one else was there.  The service – what there was of one – had been very brief, a hymn and a prayer, and the lowering of a beautiful casket into the ground.  The monument was simple and beautiful, just Kristy's name and her year of death on polished black marble.

Sara had held Nick's hand through it all, empathizing with him when he had said to the minister afterwards that Kristy had been remarkable because of her resilience, and her belief that she could change and become a better person.  The minister had listened in silence, before offering, "No one is ever irretrievably broken."

After that day, she and Nick had become close.  She began to see beneath the surface, to the actual man hiding beneath the charm and the looks.  He became a little less guarded around her, and the secrets hidden in his eyes had become harder and harder for her to ignore.

She had realized that beneath the flash, there was a different Nick.  One who had pockets of hidden pain and hidden strengths no one knew about; one who had moments of doubt and regret.  He was more thoughtful than anyone else gave him credit for; more cerebral than any one else realized.  Underneath the good ole' boy façade  was an enigma.

Her attraction for him had grown from there, but she had tamped it down strenuously under the guise of friendship.  She reasoned with herself that even though Nick didn't fit all her preconceived notions, she still wasn't the type of women he would be attracted to. 

And then Nick had been stalked; a man killed in his house, and his life had been turned upside down again.  Sara had watched him with concern as his walls – which she thought had been chipping away – were all of a sudden back up and barricaded.  He stopped talking to her – stopped talking to pretty much everyone, truth be known.  And he always seemed so angry.  No one else seemed to really be too concerned – Grissom said Nick was just working everything all out in his head, and would be back to normal in no time, but Sara wasn't so sure.

She was beginning to think this 'new' Nick was the real one; and that the 'old' happy Nick had been the fake.  He lost weight.  His face became tighter and more drawn, and his eyes – his eyes – she couldn't even look at them anymore without seeing the bruises on his soul.

He was standing in the break room staring broodingly into his coffee cup when she found him about 11 days after Nigel Crane had been arrested.  She had decided to take matters into her own hands, and was planning on forcing him to go to breakfast with her and Warrick.  Pasting a bright grin on her face, she chirped, "Hey Nick. We were thinking of going out for breakfast. Want to join us?"

She noticed Nick wince at her voice, watched with fascination and dread as he assembled his 'happy' face before her eyes, before drawling at her, "Nah, thanks. I'm going apartment hunting this morning."

Sara tilted her head, and cocked an eyebrow at him, analyzing the tight quality of his voice even as she asked,. "Apartment hunting? You moving?"
Nick shrugged, "Just temporarily. I have a big hole in my ceiling. Remember?"

Sara took a moment to respond, her gaze dropping to his clenched fists, before moving up to take in the tight clench of his jaw.  He looked so belligerent and hurt at the same time, she wanted to go over to him and hug him.
Instead, she offered him the spare room at her place, keeping her tone light as she did so.  She smiled at the stunned look he tossed her way.


"Pardon me?"


"You can stay with me if you want. I - have - a -spare - room." She kept her tone deliberately slow, as if she was talking to a small child, trying to tease him out of his dark mood.  Despite himself, Nick smiled.


"Why, Sara Sidle, are you suggesting we live together?"


Sara laughed at the sudden flirtatious gleam in Nick's eye - much better than the blankness she had been surprised to see there earlier, and tried to ignore the sudden tight feeling in her heart as she nodded her head. "Sure, why not? I've never lived with a *man* before." She dropped her tone, her voice deliberately husky as she flirted right back, smiling when she saw Nick's pupils dilate. "So, what do you say? We can move you in today if you want."

* * * * *

That day had been the start of something.  Going with Nick back to his place to help him pack some of his things, seeing the large hole in the ceiling of his living room had shown her again how close she had come to losing him.

She had kept the tone deliberately light as they went shopping for new clothes to replace his wardrobe, and she had even teased him about underwear preference.  The light-hearted banter they shared merely masked the depth of the pain Nick was feeling and her own tight concern.  No matter how hard he tried to hide it, Sara could see that he was on the verge of a breakdown.

Things had gotten incredibly tense when they got back to her place.  Sara had helped him set up the spare bed, but despite his obvious weariness, he had decided to stay up and watch TV.  Reluctantly, Sara had gone to her own room, falling into a troubled sleep.

The muffled whispers, followed by the harsh yell from her living room, woke her up abruptly not even an hour later and sent her running into her living room.  Nick was on the sofa, tossing and turning, obviously in the throes of a nightmare, and she rushed over, gently touching his shoulder.

He was on his feet so fast, eyes haunted and fists lifted, Sara thought he was going to hit her before he was fully awake.  When he jerked his shoulder away from her hand, his eyes desolate and wet with tears, she had wanted to cry.

"You had a nightmare, Nick." She tentatively reached for him again, "What's wrong?"

It was like watching a dam break.  Nick turned to her, falling into her arms so suddenly she almost collapsed at his unexpected weight.  She could feel great, racking shudders shaking him like a rag as she lowered them both to her sofa and wrapped her arms around him, mumbling gentle words of comfort as she stroked his back and cried with him.

They sat there until the storm subsided, and neither had anymore tears to cry. She could feel Nick nuzzling his face into her neck and closed her eyes against the strong surge of emotion that almost overwhelmed her, rubbing his back until his shuddering ceased.
Finally, he lifted his head from her neck and looked at her. "Why are you crying?"

 
"I'm crying because you were crying. What's going on Nick?"


And he had told her.  Everything.  In a leaden voice, keeping his eyes shut the majority of the time, he told her about the babysitter who had raped him.  She had cried again, for the little boy Nick had been and the man he had become, and it had been his turn to comfort her.

Wiping her tears gently with his thumbs, he had whispered, "I hope you don't think any less of me."

He had told her about his wild youth, when he had slept with as many women as he could, trying to erase the feel of those other hands on his body; his parents dismay at his attitude and his move to Las Vegas to escape the memories and his reputation. 

Neither of them said anything for a few moments, Sara absorbing Nick's words and Nick just sitting, tracing little circles on Sara's shoulders through the cool cotton of her pajamas.

 
"Do you hate me?" he finally whispered softly.


"How could I hate you, Nick?" Sara's response was just as soft. "But you should actually talk to a professional, and work this out. Do you still have problems committing to relationships?"


Nick had shaken his head. "I haven't been in a relationship in ages. Last one was Kristy - and we all know how that ended." His voice was sad. "And the only other person I'm interested in just sees me as a friend."

 
His words went right to Sara's heart, and she leaned closer, trying to see if he had meant that the way it had sounded. "How do you know she's not interested in you too, Nick? Have you ever asked her?"


"I'm scared too." Nick closed his eyes, whispering so softly she barely heard him. "She's one of my best friends. What if she doesn't love me?"


Sara could feel her heart stop, before quickly speeding up and beating wildly inside her chest.  Shifting slightly, digging her elbow into his stomach as she turned to look at him, she whispered back just as softly, "What if she does?"

She was staring at him intently, slim fingers tracing idle patterns on the knee of his jeans, before moving up to his shoulder and squeezing it gently.  She could feel the muscle jump in response to her touch, and allowed a small sigh to escape her.  He had shut his eyes tightly against her, almost as if he couldn't believe – or couldn't accept – what Sara was offering him.


Sara marveled as her hand drifted to his neck and back, fingers sweeping the edge of his collar before scraping the nape of his neck as she shifted closer to him.  Her other hand rose up his back and she started running her fingers through his hair.  She smiled at the need she saw in his eyes when he finally opened them to look at her, and silenced the harsh whispered 'Sara' that escaped his lips with a soft kiss.

 
The fire that swept threw them both was intense and completely unexpected. She wanted to drown in his kiss, and allowed him full access to her mouth, reveling at the incredible sensation of his tongue sweeping across her teeth and the inside of her mouth, before sweeping her own tongue to mate with his, sucking it hotly into his own. 

Sara felt like she was going up in flames.  She had never experienced such intense sensation before from just a kiss.  Straddling his lap, she could feel the heat pooling deep in the pit of her stomach as she rocked against him, running her hands up underneath his shirt, palms caressing his tight pebbly nipples, as she tried – without success – to remove it.

 
Nick pulled away from her long enough to rip it over his head, tossing it to the floor in a heap. His fingers roughly worked the buttons of the men's pajama top she was wearing, pushing it roughly from her shoulders as his mouth followed the path his fingers had just taken over her flesh.


Sara's fingers were on his chest, fingers skating his collarbone and ribcage, nails raking gently over his pectorals.  The feel of Nick's mouth and tongue on her breasts left her mewling with need.  When his fingers slipped below the hem of her pajama bottoms, she lifted her hips off his lap and against his chest to facilitate his ripping them off her, before her hands traveled to the opening of his jeans. 

She could hear his harsh groan as she quickly lowered the zipper, and almost cried in sheer exaltation when he abruptly rose to his feet, cradling her against him, as he kicked them off.  Wrapping her legs tightly around his waist and her arms tightly around his neck, she smiled into his neck as he lowered her quickly back to the sofa, whispering her name like a benediction as his body finally found it's way home.

* * * * *

Afterwards, lying on her sofa, one of her legs thrown over Nick's waist anchoring him to the sofa, she smiled when she felt his arms wrap heavily around her waist. Her head was pressed up against his chest, and she could feel the firm rhythm of his heart under her ear, synchronized to the beat of her own.

 
Nick always managed to surprise her.  He was so warm against her, the spicy smell of his shampoo blended with the musky scent she would forever associate with him. Her limbs felt like they had been liquefied, and she sighed as she ran a hand down his side, trailing her fingers from under his ribs to the indent just above his hipbone.


Nick stirred, murmuring her name huskily, turning his sleepy gaze to hers, his entire body relaxed and eyes unguarded in a way she had never seen before.  As he drifted into full-alertness, the peace radiating off him in waves changed to something tenser, his eyes flickering through a gamut of emotions – tenderness, wonder, comprehension – and lastly fear, before he managed to shutter them.  Sara recognized his sudden closure as what it was - a well- honed defense mechanism.

Smiling tenderly at him, keeping her gaze locked with his even as her hands continued their light exploration of his chest , she whispered huskily, "This sofa is not big enough for the both of us."

The only sign that Nick was surprised was the sudden flaring of his nostrils and dilation of his pupils. "Want to move into my room?"


Nick gulped, "I think we should talk about this. About what just happened, I mean.  I'm sorta - in shock."


"That good, huh?"  Sara laughed when Nick blushed, trying to keep it light, even though she knew that everything hinged on these next few moments and how she handled him.


"Well, yeah. But I meant - I didn't mean - what's going on Sara?"


"What do you want to be going on, Nick?" she replied seriously.


"I want to explore this, Sara."


His words were so soft and tentative, she wouldn't have heard them if she hadn't been plastered to his side. Reaching over the side of the sofa, she grabbed his t-shirt from the floor, pulling it over her head in a casual movement before sliding to her feet. "Come on. We can catch a good hour of sleep before shift starts. Unless you like sleeping on sofas with no sheets."


Nick slid to his feet behind her, unable to hide the longing in his eyes as he looked at her smile. "I'm not very good at this sort of thing, Sara."


"What? Sleeping?" Sara teased tenderly.

 
"Relationships. Love. I always screw things up. I don't ever want to hurt you."


Sara turned around and leaned into him, her mouth inches from his own. "The only thing that would hurt me is if you didn't want to try. I know you, Nick. And I'm prepared to face your demons with you, if you want me to. I just want you to know I'll always be here for you. And I'm glad that this happened today - it's been a long time coming."


She gave him a quick kiss, smiling into his mouth before talking his hand in her own. "No more nightmares, Nick. We'll keep them at bay."

* * * * *

There was still so much she needed to learn about him.  After their first time together, Nick had given up pretense of staying in the spare bedroom and moved into her room with her.

It had been a new experience, sharing her home and her bed with someone.  With Nick.  The first few weeks had been intense – they couldn't get enough of each other, and Sara reveled in it.  She had never thought of herself as an overly sexual person before, but Nick soon dispelled that belief.

She couldn't get enough of him – the feel of his arms around her, his hands stroking her.  The shape of his body and the way the muscles flexed and splayed whenever he moved.  The way he smelled.  His skin.  She loved his skin: the texture and feel – so different from her own. 

On their third night together, she discovered the small puckered scar on either side of his left thigh.  She recognized a gun shot wound when she one, but she didn't ask.  She knew Nick would tell her about it when he was ready.  Instead, she had spent a good 15 minutes, stroking it and kissing it, showing him with her hands and mouth how much she regretted this hurt done to his body.

The scars on his psyche were harder to heal, though.  Some nights, Nick would wake in a cold sweat, and Sara knew he had dreamed again.  The dreams were frequent at first, as if Nick – by opening the door on his memories – had opened the floodgates.  The nights when he dreamed, Sara would wake him, and try to erase with her hands and her body the memories of those other hands, and the other body that had hurt him.

But the dreams became less intense as time passed, and the person that Nick had always pretended he was became more and more real as the bad memories were replaced with good ones.

They tried to keep their relationship a secret from the others at work not wanting to put more pressure on themselves than there already was, but it was harder to do than they had anticipated.  It was hard pretending nothing was going on when Nick couldn't walk by her without casually touching her and vice versa.  And there were other clues.

Grissom asked her point blank about a week into their relationship if they were actually 'seeing each other socially outside of work'.  Sara had tried to play it cool, arching an eyebrow at him.

"He's staying with me, Grissom, until his house is fixed."

Grissom merely gazed at her, expression inscrutable.  "That doesn't answer my question."

"What makes you think there's anything else going on?"

"Other than the fact that you keep touching each other when you think no one is looking?  The fact that you're driving to work separately.  We all know he's staying with you – if it was just friends, you'd drive in together.  Driving separately indicates you're trying to hide something – namely, a relationship."  He cocked an eyebrow at her, "Am I right?"

Sara's non-response was all the answer he needed.  "Don't hurt him Sara.  I don't think he could take it if you did."

"What if he hurts me?" she had replied back.

"He won't."

* * * * *

Nick was sleeping on the sofa, stereo playing softly in the background, when Sara got home from shift.  He had had the night off, and had spent it re-organizing his house.  The ceiling had been repaired, and after much discussion, they had both decided she would move in with him.  His place was bigger for one thing, and he owned it, whereas her apartment was just a rental.

They had moved her stuff in over the weekend, and Nick had obviously spent great time this evening rearranging his disc collection, making room for her CDs in his large CD unit.  He had hung a couple of her pictures up, including her favorite 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' – James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Bogart in a '60s style soda shop – right over his sofa.

Nick stirred sleepily and opened his eyes, smiling when he saw her.  "Hey – you're home."

"What are you doing sleeping out here on the sofa?" she asked, waking over to him and falling easily into his arms when he grabber her and pulled her down to join him.

"Waiting for you," he replied, kissing her gently.  "The bed is too big without you in it."

 "And this sofa is not big enough for the both of us." Sara grinned, remembering the first time she had said that too him.

Nick's nostrils flared, and he smiled at her in appreciation, "Want to move into my room?"

"You know I do," she whispered back, but neither of them moved.  Nick stroked his hands lazily up and down her back, and Sara burrowed deeper into his chest.

"I love you Sara."

"I love you, too, Nick."

___________________________

Author's Note:  Okay, I've finally done a Sara-centric chapter to for Aftermath.  This is absolutely the last one I'm writing for this story.  I hope you all enjoy it – please R&R and let me know if you do!

Let me quote the late, great Harry Chapin here, from the song Circles:

I've found you a thousand times, I guess you've done the same

But then we'll lose each other

It's just like children's games

As I see you here again, the thought runs through my mind

Our love is  like a circle,

Let's go round one more time.